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December 31, 2015

An effective review of the 2015 year that was in criminal justice

Download (7)As I reflect this day on the interesting and dynamic last twelve months in the field of criminal justice, I find myself wishing I could channel the brillance of Tom Lehrer to write an amusing and poignant song to tell the tale of the year that was.  (For fellow Tomfoolery fans, here are some links to always timely Lehrer classics like A Christmas Carol (just a few days late) and Fight Feircly Harvard (for football fans) and Whatever Became of Hubert (for political fans) and Who's Next (for those concerned about the Iran deal).)  

But because I lack the time and the talent of Lehrer, I am content to provide a review of the year that was via this effective Huffington Post piece authored by Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Criminal Justice Reform in 2015: Year End Review," and below are some excerpts from its start, end and some in-between mentions of some sentencing matters (with links from the original):

Criminal justice reform continued to build momentum this year within the inner sanctum of the Beltway and across the nation in a handful of states. It emerged as a significant issue in the presidential campaign, and looks likely to stay front and center into 2016. Some of the year’s most significant steps forward (and back) are highlighted here....

April: A significant number of candidates running for President contributed essays to a book on criminal justice reform, entitled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice.  New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote, “The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers.  But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed.”

With the streets still smoldering in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton gives a speech declaring, “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.” 

July: Former President Bill Clinton concedes that the 1994 Crime Bill, which imposed harsh sentences for many crimes and provided incentive funding to states to build more prison beds, “made the problem worse.”...

July: President Obama takes three high-profile actions in one week, demonstrating that he wants criminal justice reform to be one of his legacies.  On Monday, July 13, the president commutes the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, the greatest number of commutations issued in a single day since Franklin Roosevelt.  The next day, President Obama gives a “passionate” address on criminal justice before the NAACP, flatly stating, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”  Then, on Thursday, July 16, President Obama becomes the first president to visit a federal prison when he tours a facility in Oklahoma.  After chatting with six non-violent drug offenders for about 45 minutes, President Obama remarks, “There but for the grace of God.”   And on the last day of the month, President Obama announces a pilot program allowing some prisoners to use Pell Grants for college courses, which Congress had banned in 1994....

November: President Obama uses his executive authority powerfully this year and signs an executive order to “ban the box,”  prohibiting federal agencies from asking potential employees about their criminal records on job applications. The federal government, President Obama says, “should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications.”

December: President Obama commutes the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and pardons two. The number of commutations granted exceeds those of the last four presidents combined....

October:  In the most significant reform measure in recent history, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes 15-5 to send the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor. Although the measure does not eliminate mandatory minimum sentences entirely -- and in fact lengthens mandatory sentences for firearms and domestic violence offenses -- it reduces mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes.  It also allows current inmates who qualify to cut their sentences by 25 percent, and sets limitations on juvenile solitary confinement.  The Act is now pending on the Senate floor and is expected to be taken up in 2016.

November: House Judiciary Committee unanimously approves the Sentencing Reform Act, the House version of the Senate sentencing reform bill. The bill is expected to be taken up by the full House in 2016....

May: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signs criminal reform legislation which is projected to cut the state’s prison population by 4,200 over five years.  In reality, it’s not much of a trim -- the state’s prisons are already running at about 185 percent of capacity.  Penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes are reduced, and more nonviolent offenders are to be diverted from prison. The state is expected to save a total of $380 million.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) signs criminal justice legislation, which is projected to cut the state’s prison population by 1,000 over five years. Despite having one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, Nebraska’s prisons were operating at 159 percent of capacity at the end of 2014, and are projected to hit 170 percent by 2020. The state is expected to save a total of $300 million in corrections costs....

December: The Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a creation of the state legislature to examine how to reduce Maryland’s prison population, releases its final recommendations.  One of 25 proposals in the report is one that would create a major change in how drug offenders are sentenced, recommending sentencing guidelines that focus on treatment in lieu of incarceration for those charged with possession....

2015 proved an extraordinarily active year for criminal justice reform in both legislative changes and the public discourse.  2016 will certainly be a year to watch amid fear that some Presidential hopefuls will start to back away from their strong support of criminal justice reform.  Already, Presidential hopeful and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted against significant criminal justice reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee, while this spring he supported efforts to reform the justice system.  Robert Kennedy once said, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope."  As we take stock of what was accomplished to improve the criminal justice system in 2015 and look ahead to 2016, a narrative of tiny ripples of hope emerges.  And with President Obama working to ensure justice reform is part of his legacy, criminal justice reform will likely remain front and center. 

December 31, 2015 at 07:26 PM | Permalink

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