This past year brought glimmers of hope for criminal justice reformers, from the decision to close Riker’s Island jail facility in New York City to the continued election of progressive prosecutors. But 2020 presents an array of issues that we need to keep tackling if we are ever going to achieve a fair and equitable criminal justice system. Without further ado, here’s my annual “Top Ten” criminal justice reform wish list for the coming year.
10. Stop Incarcerating people for non-criminal parole and probation violations
Did you know that people who miss curfew or fail a drug test while on parole or probation make up twenty-five percent of new state prison admissions each year? That means 95,000 people are incarcerated for technical violations in the U.S. on any given day, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of 2.8 billion dollars. Want to reduce prison populations and free-up criminal justice resources for programming that works? Stop incarcerating people for technical violations, and improve our supervision system for people on parole and probation.
9. Keep Electing Progressive Prosecutors. Rachel Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts (Boston); Larry Krasner in Philadelphia County; Wesley Bell in St. Louis County Missouri (Ferguson); Joe Gonzales in Bexar County, Texas; Kimberly Coxx in Cook County, Illinois (Chicago); Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. Elected on reformist platforms, these head prosecutors are calling for bail reform, refusing to pursue low-level marijuana cases, and seeking increased use of diversion programs. They are also trying to shift the culture of their offices by showing that being “smart on crime” does not mean being “tough on crime.” It is an uphill battle, with resistance from long-time line prosecutors, the police, and other stakeholders. We need to support reform-minded prosecutors, and we need to elect more of them.
8. Create an Independent National Forensic Science Commission Under President Trump, former U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions shut down the independent National Commission on Forensic Science. That was a missed opportunity. Far too many people have been convicted based on scientific techniques, including ballistics comparison and hair matching, that lack scientific reliability. If we want to use science in criminal cases, then national standards need to be set by independent scientists who work in labs that are separate from law enforcement. Let’s recreate an independent national commission so that the only science admitted in court is objective, peer-reviewed and accurate.
7. Hold Prosecutors Accountable. Prosecutors have absolute liability for the actions they take in their role as prosecutor. That includes suborning perjury, hiding evidence, and knowingly working to convict the innocent. If surgeons can be held accountable for their errors, surely prosecutors should be held accountable for their deliberate ones.
6. Fund defense lawyering. 80% of criminal defendants are assigned a public defender because they are too poor to hire their own private lawyer. A committed and well-trained defense attorney can change the outcome of an entire case. But the funding for public defender offices remains woefully inadequate, leaving many defendants with representation in name only. Let’s fund public defenders properly and level-the-playing field so that we can achieve true justice for all.
5. Stop Treating Kids as if They Were Adults. American’s love magic. Which is the only way to explain how we magically transform kids — some as young as 10 years old — into adults for criminal court purposes by charging them with adult crimes. We sometimes even jail them in adult facilities. But no matter what the legal system says, there is no magic here. Juvenile defendants are not adults. They are kids. Their brains are different than adults, and the possibilities for rehabilitation are endless. Let’s implement blanket reforms that require children to be treated as the children they are.
4. Reform the Bail System. Approximately two-thirds of people held in state jails have not been convicted of a crime but are instead being held in pretrial detention awaiting their day in court. Far too many of these people are incarcerated because they can’t make cash bail for nonviolent, less serious offenses. This is no small thing. While poor defendant languish behind bars for days, weeks or even months because they can’t make bail, they risk losing everything: their jobs, their apartments, and even custody of their children. It also negatively impacts the outcome of their cases; people detained pretrial are sentenced more severely than defendants who are not in detention. New York is the most recent state to implement sweeping bail reform measures, joining states and cities across the country that are reforming bail practices. There are effective, non-monetary methods of ensuring that people accused of crimes will return to court; we need to stop treating poverty as a crime.
3. Improve Prison Conditions and Stop Solitary Confinement. People are dying in prison from violence, lousy medical treatment indifference by correctional staff and a lack of psychological care. They are detained in facilities where temperatures top 100 degrees in the summer and are freezing in the winter. They are held in solitary confinement, which the majority of countries in the world condemn as a human rights violation. They experience trauma and violence, in conditions of severe deprivation. We need to treat the millions of people behind bars with dignity, and prepare them to reenter the world as better and more productive people. It not only makes good policy sense, but it is the right thing to do.
2. End the Death Penalty. America’s death row population is at its lowest since 1992. For the first time, more American’s favor life sentences over death for the most serious offenses. Yes, President Trump wants to bring back federal executions although a federal judge has blocked that move for now. But he’s swimming against what I believe is the inevitable tide toward abolition. The death penalty is racist, targets the poor, violates international human rights norms, and costs more than life sentences. You also can’t bring an innocent but executed person back from the dead. More than half the states have abolished capital punishment. It’s time for the rest of them to join the trend.
And NUMBER ONE on the criminal justice wish list for 2020 is…
Find and Free the Wrongly Convicted. The exact number of innocent people currently behind bars is unknown and perhaps unknowable. If we conservatively estimate that one percent of convicted people are innocent (and estimates range far higher than that), then there are tens of thousands of people in prison for crimes they did not commit. We need to reform the laws that make it hard to raise claims of innocence after a conviction or block access to DNA for post-conviction testing. We need to support the creation of Conviction Integrity Units in prosecutor offices. We need to ensure that the exonerated are compensated. We need to implement best practices to reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions in the first place. In this holiday season, let’s remember the people who are innocent but incarcerated, and let’s support organizations like the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries that fight for their freedom.
I’d love to hear what is on your list. You can post your ideas right here on the blog. Wishing you and yours much peace and happiness in the coming year!