Reforming the criminal justice system

The U.S. criminal justice system–created to punish, keep communities safe and rehabilitate–has failed to do so. U.S. prisons hold 25 percent of the world’s prisoners while the U.S. makes up just five percent of the world’s population and has relatively low levels of crime. This system of “mass incarceration” has crippled many communities while also allowing others to profit.

The desire to fight crime has left the U.S. with ineffective, overcrowded and dehumanizing prisons and jails. These places have become warehouses, housing those with mental illnesses, those impoverished, and those with skin colors yet to be accepted in this country. U.S. prisons and jails contain more people with mental illnesses than psychiatric hospitals. Guards are not trained to handle or treat those with illnesses who are prisoners.

A system of mass incarceration

Various systemic issues cause people to enter into the criminal justice system. Our government’s policy choices reinforce racism and poverty. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, making up 34 percent of the entire correctional population.

Almost half of the prison population are incarcerated for drug offenses. Some contend that incarceration rates have increased to keep communities safe, but the majority of U.S. prisoners committed nonviolent offenses. Instead of providing equal treatment, communities of color and low-income communities are targeted and discriminated against.

The “war on drugs” has been an initiative by U.S. government officials and policymakers to reduce drug trafficking and drug use. This “war” has created unjust mandatory minimum sentences, removing proper judgment and discernment from U.S. judges while sending people to prison longer than necessary.

Many in the federal government still view criminal justice through this lens, seeing prisons as a way to control drug activity while underfunding drug prevention and treatment programs.

When families lose a loved one to the criminal justice system, they often lose a financial provider and caretaker, which can worsen a cycle of poverty. Furthermore, conditions in U.S. prisons and jails make it difficult for families to continue healthy relationships with those in prison. Once convicted, many individuals are sent far away from their homes, making frequent visitation unlikely.

Making prison phone calls is extremely expensive–sometimes as high as 10 dollars a minute–and can hinder the ability of some families to contact their imprisoned loved ones. Although efforts have been made to limit these costs, federal courts have upheld the right of phone companies to a free market, no matter the cost.

Returning home can be an overwhelming process. When people are released from prison, they discover that having a criminal record in the U.S. is similar to wearing a scarlet letter. In some jurisdictions people with a criminal conviction are barred from public housing or other forms of assistance. More than six million Americans are not able to vote due to a felony conviction. These forms of disenfranchisement echo the systems of control imposed during slavery and then Jim Crow.

Instead of leading the way in punitive measures, we must lead in restoration and rehabilitation, supporting those returning to their families and communities. We must allow people to be assessed based on their professional qualities instead of their criminal records, to have voting rights, to have access to education and professional training in prisons, and to have valuable communication with loved ones.

Recommendations for future policy

Making room for true justice and equality is at the heart of transformation for this country. Criminal justice reforms must include sentencing changes, changes in prison conditions, separating criminal and mental health systems, providing alternatives to prison and giving proper support to returning citizens.

During the last Congress, there was much hope for criminal justice reform. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) gained momentum and would have changed key aspects of our justice system going forward. Despite bipartisan support, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act never passed. Unfortunately in the current Congress, there is little appetite for moving similar legislation forward.

It is critical that advocates ask Congress to make criminal justice reform a priority. Reform legislation should include removing mandatory minimums for drug offenses to allow judges to use their own discretion when sentencing and reduce the racial disparities that exist in our current criminal justice system.

Reforms should also ensure that people are assessed and treated for mental illnesses and substance abuse, rather than placed in prisons that cannot truly assist or heal them. In addition, the use of solitary confinement should be limited. Humane alternatives should be explored that effectively address prisoners’ mental health needs, rather than exacerbating them through isolation.

To reduce recidivism and enable returning citizens to be successful, reforms should help prisoners communicate more easily with their families and give those who are incarcerated educational and professional support to return to their homes with valuable skills.

To become a country that lives out its values of liberty, justice and freedom for all, we must make it our goal to create a system that moves toward greater equity and justice, where prisons are rehabilitative and a last resort, and where proper support is provided to returning citizens. -Cherelle M. Dessus