Time to Fix Our Failing Criminal-Justice System

Time to Fix Our Failing Criminal-Justice System

 PART 3:

This is the third in a series on the major policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see Heather Mac Donald, "Telling the Truth About Crime and Policing.")

Our criminal-justice system is failing the American people. Once a controversial statement, that is now a sentiment expressed across the ideological spectrum. Research, data, and public opinion have created a perfect storm of information clearly laying out how our policies fail to make communities safer, and instead can ruin lives, tear apart families, and devastate entire communities.

Today in the United States, there are over 2.3 million individuals in our criminal-justice system, and more than 11 million people cycle in and out of local jails on a yearly basis. Not only are these numbers staggering; they also disproportionately impact people of color. It’s no secret that, at every point in the criminal-justice system, minorities are overrepresented. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet comprise 40 percent of those incarcerated. If current trends continue, one in six Latino males born in 2001 will go to prison at some point during his lifetime, compared to just one in 17 white males.

Meanwhile, the number of women in the system has skyrocketed at alarming rates. In 1970, there were less than 8,000 women in jail nationwide; today, there are almost 110,0000. This population is growing faster than any other correctional population. People continue to sit in local jails — often for low-level offenses — only because they can’t post bail, not because they pose a threat to public safety. 

The structural problems and inequities in our criminal-justice system run deep. Therefore, solutions to address these problems must be bold and policymakers must approach reform comprehensively, looking at policing, sentencing, and rehabilitation. Importantly, policymakers must work to rebuild the system to reflect fair, smart, and humane policies and practices that keep communities safe, provide justice, and build trust.   

Relations between the police and communities of color have always been tense, and the issue that continues to thrust “police-community relations” back into the spotlight is the use of force. The number of officer-involved shootings over the past few years coupled with the history of violence between officers and people of color have forced this issue onto the national stage. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, and African American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by a law-enforcement officer than their white counterparts. In fact, a report by the United Nations Committee Against Torture highlighted the “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals,” as well as “the alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses.” In other words, not only are many communities of color rightly concerned about police violence — the evidence shows that, even when many factors are controlled for, people of color are still disproportionately impacted.

To build trust between law enforcement and the communities, local governments must ensure that law-enforcement officers are properly trained. This training needs to be robust and on-going — and not solely focused on weaponry and defensive tactics. Police officers must undergo de-escalation training and implicit bias training. Law enforcement must also ensure they are employing new collaborative models, such as crisis intervention teams, that partner with other social services in their communities to ensure police officers are responding with the best tools available. While law enforcement has already begun to put forward many policies in an effort to improve the current model of policing, more can and must be done.

But a culture shift in policing, alone, will not solve America’s broken criminal-justice system; current sentencing laws must also change. The United States leads the world in incarceration, and research consistently reminds us that the deterrent effect of lengthy prison sentences is modest at best. A 2014 report by The Urban Institute found that mandatory-minimum sentences are the most significant driver of the massive prison population over the past 20 years. In addition, sentencing policies in general are racially biased and lack common sense. African American and Latino males tend to be sentenced at higher rates, serve longer sentences, and are more likely to be held in custody pending trial than their white counterparts in similar situations. In many cases, mandatory minimums are inherently biased and remove a judge’s ability to determine sentence length appropriately on a case-by-case basis.  

And, finally, policymakers need to address what happens to people once they enter into the criminal-justice system. As it is currently structured, our prison system is not organized or operated in a way that prioritizes rehabilitation. Most individuals enter the system with many challenges. A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, for example, found that 70 percent of state and 64 percent of federal prisoners “regularly used drugs” prior to incarceration. In addition, over 50 percent of state prisoners and 64 percent of jail inmates suffer from mental-health disorders. Eighty-six percent of female inmates reported experiencing sexual violence. 

Yet, when you look at how government dollars are directed, programming and services targeted to these issues are small. For example, only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates actually receive some form of mental-health treatment upon admission. Most female offenders are mothers and are non-violent, yet family-based treatment, expanded visitation hours, and keeping inmates close to their homes is rarely a priority in our criminal-justice system.

There is public support for providing inmates with the treatment they need. In a June 2015 poll conducted by the ACLU, 87 percent Americans said they felt individuals suffering from a substance abuse disorder and mental illness should be in treatment facilities, not prisons. We must ensure dollars are directed to such services moving forward. 

Reforming our nation’s criminal-justice system will take political will, and it will require a collaborative effort between policymakers, advocates, and law enforcement. Luckily, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has been working towards this goal for years, and President Obama and U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch have laid the groundwork to ensure federal prosecutors use common sense when filing charges. 

The American public overwhelmingly believes — by a two-to-one margin — that reducing prison populations will make communities safer. But good policy reforms can easily fall victim to politics and fear. Let us not fall victim to fear, but instead make good policy decisions based on data, research, and what we know is best for our communities. 


Danyelle Solomon is the Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. 


Author’s Recommended Reading:

Danyelle Solomon, “The Intersection of Policing and Race,” Center for American Progress (September 2016)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012)

Julie Samuels, Nancy La Vigne, and Samuel Taxy, “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” Urban Institute (November 2013).

Marc Mauer and Kate Epstein (eds.), To Build a Better Criminal Justice System, Sentencing Project (2012).

Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn (eds.), The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, National Academy of Sciences Report (2014).


(Read the response by Heather Mac Donald.)

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