The United States criminalizes more acts than any other country in the world. According to statistics, more than 6 million Americans are currently either behind bars, on parole, or on probation. With facts like these, there’s no doubt that our nation is in dire need of criminal justice reform. So what are the problems, and how can we go about fixing them?
The Flaws: Why Criminal Justice Reform is Necessary
There are several factors to consider. First of all, our system places too much emphasis on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. This is especially true when it comes to juvenile offenders. Too often, youthful missteps lead to the “revolving door syndrome.” This occurs when an ex-convict returns to crime because there seems to be no alternative. While it’s important that juveniles understand and learn from their errors, it’s also important to ensure that the punishment suits the crime.
Also, the focus should be not on the sentence, but rather on the consequences of the act itself. Young offenders need to know that acts of wrongdoing have repercussions. Strong criminal justice reform would take this into consideration, and make moves to help prevent repeat offenses.
The plea bargain system is another weak link in the chain. It’s standard practice for defendants to plead guilty, in the attempt to avoid a more severe sentence. Racial inequality is also a problem. Blacks and Latinos are three times as likely to see jail time as their white counterparts. Needless to say, this issue reinforces negative stereotypes. The pursuit of money is another key factor. Prisons are built on profit — many are now privately owned and operated, rather than state-run. Also, public defenders are overworked and underpaid, making it difficult for them to provide an adequate defense. As if all of this weren’t bad enough, 38 out of 50 states now require judges to run for office. This means that the ones doling out the punishments are reliant on campaign donors.
The Way Forward
Fortunately, many states are also working toward criminal justice reform. Leading the pack is none other than New Jersey, which recently elected a Democratic governor to replace Republican Chris Christie in January.
Phil Murphy won the election by a landslide, beating incumbent Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno by 13 percentage points. According to Murphy’s campaign platform, this will mean significant progress in terms of criminal justice reform. Here are a few of the promises that Murphy used to secure voters in his successful gubernatorial bid:
Legalization of Marijuana
Murphy supports the legalization of both medicinal and recreational marijuana. It is his contention that such a move will lead to increased tax revenue. This would be an obvious boon for the state. For some intriguing facts on New Jersey’s drug crimes, click here.
Elimination of cash bail
This move is being hailed by many as a key step toward ensuring that the more dangerous criminals remain behind bars, while those who pose less of a threat will go free sooner. The Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment (PSA) is a useful tool for determining an individual’s risk factor. The PSA uses information such as age, nature of the charges, incarcerations, and failure to appear in order to help judges make their decisions. Meanwhile, other factors, such as neighborhood, education level, and family situation are not taken into account at all. These algorithms are already particularly advanced in the state of New Jersey. Murphy, however, would like the PSA to eliminate the cash bail system altogether.
Expanding the Use of Police Body Cams
Given the headlines in the last year or two, there can be little doubt remaining that police officers need to be held accountable for their actions. While police departments in some cities claim that the use of body cameras has had little to no effect on complaints of officer misconduct, others — such as San Diego — have seen such complaints reduced by more than a third.
Mandatory Minimum Laws
These sentencing laws will force criminals convicted of serious and/or dangerous crimes to undergo long periods of rehabilitation. This will help to keep cities safer while lessening the likelihood of early repeat offenses.
Helping Ex-Convicts Adjust
The stigma of incarceration often clings to an inmate upon release, making it difficult to find sustainable work on the outside. This leads many ex-convicts to become repeat offenders, as they feel they have no other opportunities — and therefore no choice. Murphy has promised to prioritize programs that help inmates adjust to life outside of prison.
A Positive Outlook
In New Jersey, Murphy will enjoy the support of Senate and House majorities. Therefore, he has a better-than-average chance of seeing his plans come to fruition. The Garden State has seen strong legislative support for this type of criminal justice reform over the last several years. Governor Christie, meanwhile, has consistently thrown up roadblocks to impede its progress.