March 26, 2017
Notable perspectives on state and direction of modern criminal justice reform efforts
James Forman has this lengthy new commentary in the New York Times under the headlined "Justice Springs Eternal." I recommend the full piece to anyone and everyone seeking to take stock and reflect upon the current moment in the modern criminal justice reform movement. Here are some extended excerpts:
After almost 50 years of relentless prison-building in the United States, of aggressive policing and a war on drugs that goes after our most vulnerable citizens, the movement for a more merciful criminal justice system had begun to seem, if not unstoppable, at least plenty powerful.
In 2015, the number of American prisoners declined more than 2 percent, the largest decrease since 1978. By 2014, the incarceration rate for black men, while still stratospheric, had declined 23 percent from its peak in 2001. Even growing numbers of Republicans were acknowledging the moral and fiscal imperative of shrinking the prison state.
And then came President Trump, who caricatures black neighborhoods as killing fields in desperate need of more stop-and-frisk policing, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who shrugs off evidence of systemic police abuses in cities like Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., and says that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. (In fact, nearly 13,000 Americans died from heroin overdoses in 2015, while zero died from marijuana overdoses.)
Such dangerous, ill-informed pronouncements naturally induce weariness and dread. Yet despite this bleak news from Washington, the movement to reduce the prison population and make our criminal justice system more humane is not in retreat. In fact, it is stronger than ever....
The most unexpected victories came in local races for prosecutor. For decades, district attorney candidates competed to prove they were tougher on crime than their opponents. That makes what happened last November so extraordinary: Prosecutors around the country campaigned on promises to charge fewer juveniles as adults, stop prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and seek the death penalty less often. And they did so in places with well-deserved reputations for rough justice, including Chicago, Houston and Tampa, Fla....
These state and local election results get less attention than Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions, but they may have a bigger impact on incarceration rates. While mass incarceration is a national crisis, it was built locally. Ninety percent of American prisoners are in state, county and local jails, and around 85 percent of law enforcement officers are state and local, not federal.
Of course, the federal government exerts influence on law enforcement at all levels, both through rhetoric (the tone set in Washington filters down) and funding (Congress can encourage states to build more prisons by offering to foot part of the bill). But most crime policy is set by state and local officials: police officers, pretrial services officers, local prosecutors, defense lawyers, juries (in the rare cases that don’t end in a plea agreement), judges, state legislatures, corrections departments and state parole boards. During the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1970s, each of those entities became more punitive, and the cumulative impact of their policies and actions caused the number of people in prison or under criminal justice supervision to skyrocket.
Now, the reverse could also prove to be true. If multiple individuals across multiple systems were to become less punitive, the prison population would fall. This is why each state and local electoral victory — even those that don’t make news — is so significant. Mass incarceration will have to be dismantled the same way it was constructed: piecemeal, incrementally and, above all, locally.
The question is, what can be done to sustain such progress — especially at a time when crime is rising in some cities and the “law-and-order” mantra pioneered by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the 1960s has regained currency at the federal level? The answer lies with a new breed of activism that has emerged in response to mass incarceration. Reform groups and nonprofits are tackling issues and adopting strategies that an earlier generation of reformers did not....
[N]o aspect of our criminal justice system is as overworked and underfunded as public defender services. Of the more than $200 billion that states and local governments spend on criminal justice each year, less than 2 percent goes to public defense. Yet improving indigent defense gets scant attention in the conversation about how to fix our criminal justice system.
President Barack Obama “wrote a 55-page article about criminal justice reform and didn’t mention public defenders,” said Jonathan Rapping, the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based group that is building a movement of public defenders to drive justice reform. “Eighty percent of the people charged with crimes in this country can’t afford a defense attorney,” Mr. Rapping added. “That means that 80 percent of the people in court depend on their public defender to be their voice, to tell their stories and to assert their humanity in a system that routinely denies it. Until we invest in public defenders, our system cannot and will not change.”
But what about the prosecutors whom public defenders and their clients face in court? This question points to one more critical item on the criminal justice reform agenda. We must continue to recruit progressive prosecutors to run in local elections, support those who do, and hold them accountable if they win. And let me go one step further: Law students and midcareer lawyers committed to criminal justice reform should consider signing up as assistant district attorneys in offices run by the new crop of progressive prosecutors.
This last suggestion, I confess, doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve taught law school for almost 15 years, and during that time I’ve repeatedly counseled progressive students against working as prosecutors. I had lots of reasons, but the main one was straightforward: You might go in as a reformer, but the office will change you, not the other way around.
I still believe this is true for most prosecutors’ offices. But the recent election of prosecutors who criticize racial disparities and challenge wrongful convictions has caused me to change my mind. Prosecutors committed to reform need talented staff members who share that commitment, and our best legal talent should flock to their offices.
Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump have the largest microphones and will get the most attention. But their agenda faces a rising countermovement across the country. If we stay local and continue to learn from past defeats and recent victories, the movement for a fairer criminal justice system can outlast them and prevail.
March 26, 2017 at 11:13 AM | Permalink
NY Times. Ivy indoctrinated reporters. Lying propaganda outlet controlled by Carlos Slim, an America hating foreigner, a Mexican cement billionaire. The NY Times is the Al Jazeera of Mexico now, representing Mexican interests. Those are to continue and to expand the drug trade into the USA.
Dismissed. Criminal coddling, rent seeking, foreign propaganda, lying nonsense.
Posted by: David Behar | Mar 26, 2017 11:57:05 AM