A Rare Opportunity for Criminal Justice

A Rare Opportunity for Criminal Justice

Image courtesy aclu.org

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Leave it to the baby-boomer generation to be a primary contributor to a new paradigm for criminal justice reform. After years of punitive legislation in an effort to cut back on crime, young lawmakers are having an epiphany about what really works when it comes to challenging high crime rates and lowering the recidivism rate.

Two major reasons for these changes are the almighty dollar and the fact that the current legislation is the first generation that hasn’t experienced the impact of Prohibition and totalitarian regimes.

Welcome to an era where for the first time in political history the right and left wingers are merging together with efforts to mend the present condition of the criminal justice system.  

The current economic status of the United States is partially responsible for legislature to take a more serious look at how mass incarceration is causing state and federal budgets to continue a growing deficit.

The 2008-2009 recession forced conservatives to consider a more effective approach to incarceration.

Between baby-boomers who are tired of punitive approaches for controlling crime and Generation X-er’s (born 1965-1979) fresh philosophies around criminal justice legislation, it is an exciting time to witness the most significant criminal justice overhaul in American history. 

Even though Congress has conventionally been a resting place where bills go to die because of partisan mistrust, two bipartisan bills that address mass incarceration and recidivism reduction are now in deliberation. 

The Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced in the Senate last year by Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, the Utah Republican — this bill would reduce minimum sentences and provide judges with below mandatory minimum sentences options for appropriate cases. Specific drug offenders, such as non-violent drug offenders that are currently clogging up the criminal justice system and costing taxpayers money would be granted early release. If passed, the Act would abolish the five, 10 and 20 year minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders that are continuing to serve time because of outdated laws established during the 70s War on Drugs. Thousands of offenders would be released that are still being punished under an archaic law that excessively sentenced crack cocaine offenders. 

Some prosecutors and politicians argue that new sentencing policy plans pose a strong probability of jeopardizing public safety.

Smarter Sentencing Act supporters claim the proposal is not risky because it is supported by The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. Drug offenders would not be mindlessly released onto the streets to re-offend. The bill would reinforce public safety by motivating low-risk prisoners to participate in productive reentry programs designed to equip inmates with outside living survival applications.     

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, is a practical approach to lowering the recidivism rate. Low-risk prisoner’s participation in job training, education, and drug treatment programs would have an opportunity to earn credit for early release.

According to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice, since 2000, 29 states that have acted to cut back on mandatory sentences, particularly for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders, have proven that reserving prison for the most violent offenders saves money and that anti-recidivism programs targeted at low-risk inmates protect public safety.

The state of Texas, known for its conservatism, incarcerates more people than any other state, but according to The Times, Mr. Cornyn claims in the article From Texas’s perspective, the evidence is in that the state’s inception of innovative substitutes for prison has resulted in a steady decline in prison populations. Drug courts and upgraded programs designed to reduce the recidivism rate have been implemented by Texas legislators.

It doesn’t matter if these changes are being made because of domestic money shortages or compassion for people serving long sentences for menial crimes. The true miracle is there is a convergence of opposite minds that is leading to a powerful transformation of the justice system.