The past several years have seen a growing awareness among Americans that our criminal justice policies are flawed and need to be reformed. The premise has included the system being harsher on minorities than non-minorities, too severe on non-violent drug offenders, and just plain old inefficient and ineffective. All of this appears to be true, but current reform initiatives seem to miss the point
Those who spearhead criminal justice reforms (including a recent string of U.S. presidential election candidates) should be applauded for understanding that there is a problem that needs to be fixed (realizing that there is a problem is the first step to recovery). But the reforms don’t go nearly far enough.
By and large, they don’t even focus on the current broken criminal justice system, but on derailing a future, projected one which is even worse than today. This means that reforms are aimed at changing the system’s future trajectory, not the current problems with the current system and, in particular, today’s prisons.
One such laudable initiative is being spurred by a December 2015 Alaska Criminal Justice Commission report. The report shows that the state’s prisons will be full by 2017, but, by implementing 21 evidence-based recommendations, the state could save $424 million in expenditures and reduce the prison population by 21 percent over the next decade. All of these are spurring projections, but they don’t focus on Alaska’s current prison crisis. Instead, these reforms focus on those who have not yet been arrested or are in jail, not on the flaws of yesteryear that filled today’s prisons in the first place.
Simply stated, the focus needs to be broader. Should reforms focus on new admits to the criminal justice system (e.g., new arrestees, people currently committing crimes who haven’t yet been apprehended, etc.)? Yes. That is some of the solution to future projected woes. But the current prison crisis also needs to be addressed. This is only done through retroactive reforms, something most politicians don’t seem able to stomach.
For the past several years Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission have made steps in the right direction to alleviate issues as they concern first-time, non-violent drug offenders. This is a worthy group to focus on, but by limiting the focus solely to this very limited, palpable group of offenders, the larger problems can be ignored.
After all, reducing the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine was the right thing to do. A massive wrong was corrected; a wrong that some have asserted had a racial motive when initially put in place. While this reform left the American people and politicians feeling as though they had really fixed something –which they did, to a certain extent – but it only addressed a small slice of the overall problem.
While it is easier to latch on to one limited, politically palpable group of prisoners to help (e.g., drug offenders, non-violent offenders, first-time offenders, etc.), this is a false panacea because it does not permit real reform to occur. This is token reform, which politicians’ constituents might find acceptable, hence why they support it. Instead, larger reforms need to be considered; reforms that apply to most prisoners, not only a select few. These reforms need to be across the board, but also based on empirical research and result in quantifiable returns. The answer is not to open the prison gates; it is to build a system based on successfully completing a term of incarceration, not merely lasting until the magical date of release.
If Americans really want to fix the collection of broken state and federal criminal justice systems across the country, then they need to be willing to stomach both good feelings of successfully helping palpable groups and bad feelings of setting aside retribution for groups that they strongly dislike. Only then will America’s criminal justice system no longer be broken.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com