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April 1, 2018

Is criminal justice reform really likely to be "a winning issue in 2018"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Salon article headlined "Beyond 'law and order': Criminal justice reform looks like a winning issue in 2018: Voters don’t want Trump-style demagoguery about crime. They’re ready for real work to reduce mass incarceration." Here are excerpts:

During his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump painted a terrifying picture of the United States as a crime-ridden wasteland where people cower in fear in their homes, declaring, "I am the law-and-order candidate."...  Despite this, criminal justice reform activists and experts believe that a more positive message on crime and law enforcement is a winner: We can lower incarceration rates in the U.S. without sacrificing public safety.

Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, told Salon that she sees an "awakening of America to the problem of mass incarceration."  She believes there's an "increasing consensus that we do need to reduce our prison population" and that the tough-on-crime posturing from Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions is "out of step with this current consensus."...

A 2017 poll from the Charles Koch Institute "reveals that 81 percent of Trump voters consider criminal justice reform important," the report explains.  "Another, from Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, finds that 87 percent of Americans agree that nonviolent offenders should be sanctioned with alternatives to incarceration.  And according to a 2017 ACLU poll, 71 percent of Americans support reducing the prison population — including 50 percent of Trump voters."

The [new Brennan Center] report outlines a number of critical policies lawmakers can enact to reduce prison rates, such as passing sentencing reform laws, decriminalizing marijuana and diverting people to mental health services instead of jail.  Importantly, the report focuses on federal, state and local policy ideas.  Most people are incarcerated in state and local facilities, and the only way to truly reduce the prison population is for reform efforts to be focused on every level of government.

This is no doubt why there's been increased attention to the role local prosecutors play in creating the mass incarceration problem — and the role they can play in fixing it. There's been significant media coverage, for instance, of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia's new district attorney, who was elected after promising significant reforms to the prosecutor's office aimed at reducing incarceration rates.  Now Krasner is making good on those promises, fighting the railroading of defendants and encouraging his attorneys not to seek maximum penalties for nonviolent or low-level offenses.

This is in direct contrast with how most prosecutors do things, Chettiar said, noting that "prosecutors are officially and unofficially rewarded . . . based on conviction rates, length of sentences and how zealously they enforce and punish defendants," a situation that developed in direct reaction to the "tough on crime" frenzy of the '80s and '90s.

While the Brennan Center report has some ideas for prosecutors and mentions the election of Krasner — as well as progressive prosecutors in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Tampa and St. Louis — Chettiar cautioned that it's not enough to elect prosecutors who run on reform platforms.  “I worry that the election of these progressive prosecutors could potentially distract from the obligation of state legislators and congress and governors to act to change laws," she said.  “It is equally important, if not more so, that our criminal laws and sentencing laws are changed." 

April 1, 2018 at 02:22 PM | Permalink


Reform has a large number of synonyms so I do not know what people mean when they say they want to reform the criminal justice system. If they mean repairs and alterations to fix things where there is general agreement they are broken and to make necessary alterations as the system adapts to changes in criminal behavior and other environmental changes I would support that. However, that does not appear to be what they mean when the use the term reform.

If there is a consensus it is that we are spending too much money on incarceration. However, there is no consensus on how to manage prison inmates that are released from prison to reduce incarceration costs. A central question to any discussion about reform is why are we getting such poor results from community supervision.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 1, 2018 10:00:11 PM

NY is ahead of the curve. I am not commenting any further. Berman censored this reference.


Posted by: David Behar | Apr 2, 2018 1:31:40 AM

The Mayor and prosecutor of Baltimore are strong Decarceration advocates.


Posted by: David Behar | Apr 2, 2018 9:40:09 AM

Mexico. Overlawyered. Decarcerated.

I know a beautiful, fun and adventure loving American girl. She was sober, and doing nothing wrong, just walking around. She was taken by the police, held in jail, in Cabo tourist areas. Stripped, and photographed naked by the male police. She had to pay to be released. In 2017.


Posted by: David Behar | Apr 2, 2018 10:04:55 AM

I don't think wins by "progressive" prosecutors in Democratic primaries in urban counties says much about whether criminal justice reform is a winning issue in 2018. Those counties were already electing "progressive" legislators and Congressmen who proposed reform legislation that was used by conservative Republicans to bash moderate and conservative Democrats over the head in elections in rural and suburban districts for the past three decades.

If you were really seeing a change in things, you would see reform candidates winning not just in Dallas County but also in Collins and Tarrant County; not just in the City of St. Louis, but also St. Louis County and St. Charles County; not just in Cook County, but also DuPage, Will, Lake, and Kane; etc.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 2, 2018 11:12:09 AM

There are too many cities. Can we see a few? I'm not a nutcase.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 2, 2018 11:46:26 AM

tmm. The crime rates will not go up in those cities. It is being attenuated by the opioid overdose crisis. Hundreds of criminals in each location are passing away each year, preventing their 200 crimes a year each, and decreasing their high fecundity.

As this epidemic incapacitates more and more, common law crime may come close to disappearing. So, 1500 addicts pass away a year. In 10 years, that will amount to 15000 people, not committing 200 crimes a year, each. Very few of these overdoses happen to chronic pain patients.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 2, 2018 1:18:51 PM

Behar writes that "very few of these overdoses happen to chrnoic pain patients." As ususal, he is mistaken.

Study: 61% of Opioid-Related Deaths Linked to Chronic Pain Diagnosis
In a study that underscores the need to rethink pain treatment in the US, researchers have found that more than 6 out of 10 individuals who died of an opioid-related cause had received a diagnosis for a chronic noncancer pain condition within the preceding year. The same group was also more likely to have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and prescribed psychotropic medications--including benzodiazepines, which can increase the risk of death when combined with opioids.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (abstract only available for free), focused on 13,089 opioid-related deaths among Medicaid patients under 65 years old. Researchers divided the decedents into 2 groups—those who had received a chronic noncancer pain diagnosis in the year preceding death, and those who didn't—and looked at other clinical diagnoses, filled medical prescriptions, and nonfatal poisonings during the 12 months preceding death as well as 30 days before death.

Among the findings:

Out of the 13,089 decedents included in the study, 61.5% were diagnosed with a chronic pain condition in the year preceding death. Within the chronic pain group, 59.3% were diagnosed with back pain, 24.5% with headaches, and 6.9% with neuropathies. Authors write that "virtually all the decedents in the chronic pain group were also diagnosed with other bodily pain conditions." Decedents in the chronic pain group were more likely to be female and white
Overall, 66.1% of decedents filled opioid prescriptions during the last 12 months, and 61.6% filled prescriptions for benzodiazepines—the class of drugs typically used to treat anxiety. During the last 30 days of life, decedents diagnosed with chronic pain were more likely to fill 1 or more prescriptions for opioids (49%) and benzodiazepines (52.1%) than the nonpain group (17.2% and 26.6%, respectively).
Decedents with a pain diagnosis were about twice as likely as those without a diagnosis to have experienced a nonfatal overdose during the 12 months prior to death.
In the chronic pain group, 45.6% of the fatal opioid poisonings were from natural and semisynthetic opioids, and 16.7% from other synthetic opioids. Among nonpain decedents the rates were 39% and 12.2%, respectively.
Within the last 12 months of life, the chronic pain group was more likely than the nonpain group to receive a mental health diagnosis, including drug use disorder (40.8% compared with 22.1%), depression disorder (29.6% compared with 13%), and anxiety disorder (25.8% compared with 8.4%). Authors note that although a diagnosis of substance use disorder was relatively common among both groups, a specific diagnosis of opioid use disorder was not—only 14.7% in the pain group, and 11.8% in the nonpain group.
Authors highlighted the prevalence of opioid prescriptions within the last 30 days of life as a particular concern, pointing out that the 36.8% average far exceeds the 8.8% average among all Americans for filling a prescription for an analgesic over a 30-day period. "This pattern raises the possibility that health care professionals may frequently be proximal sources of opioids in fatal overdoses," they write.

The researchers also asserted that given the high rate of mental health diagnoses, particularly among the pain group, health providers need to be particularly wary of prescribing benzodiazepines with opioids. They write that physicians should limit opioid and benzodiazepine coprescribing "to patients for whom alternative strategies have proven inadequate, carefully monitoring for sedation and respiratory depression, and limiting such coprescription to the minimum clinically required dosage and duration."

The study lends support to the idea that reliance on opioids for noncancer pain treatment is helping to fuel the opioid crisis in the US—a crisis that APTA is helping to address through its #ChoosePT opioid awareness campaign. The campaign is aimed at informing consumers that physical therapy is an effective alternative to drugs for the treatment of pain. Housed at MoveForwardPT.com/ChoosePT, #ChoosePT includes a video public service announcement, as well as other targeted advertising and media outreach. Members can also learn more about the PT's role in pain management through offerings on PTNow, including a webpage with resources for pain management and an opioid awareness checklist.

Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.

Posted by: Hanna | Apr 2, 2018 7:33:05 PM

Hanna. What happened to the other 50,000 overdose deaths? If you study Medicaid patients, you will get patients. You are saying, around 10% of people are prescribed pain meds, and almost half have pre-existing addiction. That leaves 5% of the real total. One has to question their undiagnosed addictive conduct as well. This was a record study. It has no meaning, because the Medicaid diagnoses are ones of convenience, to get insurance pre-authorizations, and meaningless.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 3, 2018 8:27:31 AM

Hanna. Please review this subject.


Posted by: David Behar | Apr 3, 2018 7:12:27 PM

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