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Top 10 Ways to Fix the Criminal Justice System

It’s that time of year when people are making lists and checking them twice. Here is my action list about ways to fix the criminal justice system, with suggestions for steps we all can take. What would be on your list?

10. Return to Community Policing. If the police personally know the folks they are tasked to serve, then they get a sense of who lives in the neighborhood, who is dealing drugs, and who is going to school. With knowledge, comes trust. With knowledge, police are better able to make informed, life-and-death, split second decisions. Just look at Camden, New Jersey – one of the poorest cities in New Jersey, with a stunning crime problem. The recently formed Camden County police force has implemented a new community policing program, and homicides have dramatically declined. There’s still much to be done, but community policing has had an important impact. Advocate for its return.

9. Stop the Use of Solitary Confinement in Prisons, Particularly for Juveniles in Detention Facilities. Solitary confinement has become a widespread prison management tool where people are held, in extreme isolation, sometimes for years or decades. But it does more harm than good. People locked up in solitary often come out more psychologically and physically damaged than when they went in. Solitary confinement is fundamentally inhumane, extremely costly, contrary to the public good, and often unnecessary.

8. Reduce Violence in Prison by Improving Prison Accountability and Leadership. People are sent to prison because they were convicted of a crime. Their punishment is the prison sentence itself. Yet, thousands of prisoners – including those who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes – become the victims of sexual assault and other violent attacks while serving prison sentences. When their sentence is over, they return to society more damaged, traumatized and maladjusted then when they entered in the first place. If you want to reduce high rates of recidivism, then make prisons safer and hold administrators accountable for the devastating violence that occurs under their watch.

7. Support Alternatives-to-Arrest and -Incarceration Programs. Too many people wind up in the criminal justice system. Some people are arrested who shouldn’t be. And once an arrest is made, a cycle of incarceration begins that is often skewed against the poor and poor people of color. Support initiatives that offer alternatives to the justice system, such as after school programs, mental health centers, and drug treatment options. These programs require funding and are costly in the short term. But a healthier community is better -and safer – in the long run than an incarcerated one.

6. Support Public Defender Offices and Other Organizations that Fight for Equality in the Criminal Justice system. Public defenders serve poor people accused of crimes. It is a hard and often heart-breaking job, involving far too many cases and far too little resources to do the job required of them by the Constitution. A good public defender is the best defense against any governmental overreaching that may occur in the system, and offices need financial support to address today’s indigent defense crisis.

5. Support the Passage of Laws That Reduce Overly Harsh Sentences. People are serving life sentences for non-violent drug offenses or for certain felonies under habitual offender laws. These sentences are unnecessary and are overly punitive. They often fall on the backs of the poor and people of color. And they cost a fortune. Support bills such as the Smarter Sentencing Act, and other laws that may be pending in your state.

4. End the Death Penalty. The death penalty is racist, expensive and outdated. White victims appear to matter the most, and black defendants and black victims appear to matter the least. Not only is the death penalty discriminatory, but it’s expensive. Death penalty cases cost millions more than non-capital cases ending in a life sentence. We could take those savings and do a whole lot of good, for a whole lot of people. And dare I say it? The death penalty is just flat out wrong. Europe and most of the Americas have abolished it, leaving the United States in the company of China, North Korea and Pakistan on the list of countries who retain the punishment. Come on, now. It’s time. Get rid of it.

3. Hold Prosecutors and Police Responsible for Deliberate Misconduct. Police and prosecutors who deliberately engage in misconduct are rarely held liable for their actions. I’m talking about serious misconduct that lands innocent people in jail, such as hiding or destroying evidence that could clear the accused of charges, or fabricating evidence to make a defendant appear guilty, or relying on testimony that is known to be false, or obtaining and then using coerced confessions. That needs to change. And fast. A policy of liability for deliberate misconduct could make those state actors think twice before they play fast and loose with people’s lives.

2. Require All States to Provide Compensation to the Exonerated. I cannot imagine anything worse than a person being wrongly convicted for a crime they did not commit. Only 30 states, plus Washington D.C., have laws that provide compensation to the wrongly convicted. Some of these laws provide only token support to the exonerated, while 20 states provide no compensation at all. When the criminal justice system makes a grievous mistake by sending an innocent person to prison, the state has a moral and ethical responsibility to make amends by providing adequate financial support, counseling, educational and job training, and housing. If your state doesn’t have a law, ask your legislator to pass one.

1. Pay Attention to — and Speak Out — About Injustice Whenever You See It. The criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform. But reform will only occur when people speak with unified conviction about a more just and equitable system that focuses more on public safety than on a person’s skin color or class status. When people in large numbers speak out for justice, policymakers will have no choice but to respond.

The time is ripe for change. Here’s to making it happen in 2015.

Published in the Huffington Post 12/22/2014.

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