“What’s Next for Criminal Justice Reform?”

The 2014 Texas Tribune Festival featured a panel discussion on criminal justice reform titled “What’s Next for Criminal Justice Reform?”

The panel was moderated by Marshall Project Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller and panelists included Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Executive Director Ana Yáñez-Correa, state Rep. Abel Herrero, exoneree Michael Morton, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Vikrant Reddy, and state Rep. James White.

Listen to audio on Texas Tribune

Maintaining Safety While Being Fiscally Responsible

The last several decades have seen a massive government expansion in crime. Over-criminalization has expanded state and federal prisons, causes a burden to taxpayers and a concerning cycle of recidivism. Because states can no longer finance this overkill response to low-level non-violent offenses, it is fiscally necessary that they reduce sentences. To accomplish this while maintaining safety for citizens, reentry programs, vocational training and drug-treatment programs are needed to ensure lower recidivism. This is particularly important for juveniles for which interventions are much more effective, saving taxpayer dollars in the future. To accomplish all of this for citizens states and municipalities are key for effective implementation.

The “get tough on crime” movement, emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to enormous increases in drug arrests, longer prison sentences with mandatory minimums, more punitive juvenile justice sentencing and greater incarceration of juveniles, low-income individuals and people of color.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), about 6.98 million people were under some form of adult correctional supervision in the U.S. at yearend, 2011. This is the equivalent of about 1 in 34 adults – or about 2.9 percent of the adult population – in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

By the end of 2012, there were around 1.35 million people incarcerated in state prisons, 217,800 in federal prisons and 744,500 in local jails. From 1998 to 2009, the state cost of mass incarceration of criminals increased from $12 billion to $52 billion per year.

Today, there is movement to reform the criminal justice system and reverse the trend of mass incarceration of nonviolent and drug related offenders. Federal, state and local leaders are looking for innovative ways to reduce the costs of criminal justice and corrections by keeping low-risk, nonviolent, drug involved offenders out of prison or jail, while still holding them accountable and ensuring the safety of our communities.

The Administration, Congress and many states are enacting new policies to slow the growth of prison populations and even downsizing corrections systems to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Continue reading at Public CEO

Report Finds Flaws; Makes Suggestions to Increase Justice

New research has revealed ways to ensure greater liberty for citizens. Revealing flaws in current investigations, this research shows that many individuals, including numerous veterans, have been wrongfully imprisoned based on faulty evidence. With recommendations for the future, there is hope that justice and liberty will be increased.

The National Academy of Sciences released a groundbreaking report Thursday that provides strong scientific confirmation and explanation of what we’ve long known about the reliability of eyewitness identifications: They’re not nearly as reliable as we’d like to think. In fact, eyewitness misidentifications have contributed to 72% of the 318 wrongful convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence.

Researchers looked at more than 30 years of basic and applied scientific research on memory and identification. They found that “the malleable nature of human visual perception, memory and confidence; the imperfect ability to recognize individuals; and policies governing law enforcement procedures can result in mistaken identifications with significant consequences.”

These findings are no surprise to Kirk Bloodsworth, Dennis Maher and Brandon Moon, who collectively spent 44 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit before being proven innocent by DNA.

Continue reading at USA Today

Illinois Criminal Justice Crossroads

Even acknowledging the change in dialogue for both parties about criminal justice reform, many states still have a long way to go. Illinois is at a crossroads, poised to follow either states such as California whose overcrowded swollen prisons pose both a safety and financial burden to its citizens, or states like Texas and New York that have safely decreased their numbers of offenders. Hopefully Illinois will choose the option to lower the government expansion of crime, finding a more cost-effective way to divert low-level non-violent offenders from becoming high-risk criminals. The beginnings of change have been seen in the state and need to be continued.

After decades of using incarceration as the country’s primary response to crime, leading Republicans and Democrats are embracing safe, fair, and cost-effective prison reform.

As Illinois prepares to elect its next governor, voters should ask the candidates where they stand on this issue and what their vision and goals are for the state’s crowded and under-resourced $1.3-billion prison system.

Like all states, Illinois’ prison population has grown exponentially over the past 40 years, going from around 6,000 inmates in 1974 to 49,000 today, despite the fact that the system was designed to hold only 32,000.

Continue reading at Huffington Post

Moving Beyond “Sound Bites”: National Journal on How Right on Crime Has Changed Conservative Thinking on Criminal Justice

The National Journal‘s Emma Roller covers the changes in conservative attitudes towards criminal justice policy, singling out the Right on Crime campaign for contributing to this important shift.

Forty years later, Marc Levin still cites the Horton case as one of the main reasons for America’s difficulty coming around to prison reform. Levin is the cofounder of Right on Crime, a conservative, Texas-based group that advocates for sentencing reform and eliminating mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses.

Levin says that after the 1988 election, Democrats overcompensated with too-strict crime laws. “After Willie Horton and everything, they were really scared about being seen as soft on crime, so they overreacted and latched onto things that weren’t good policy, but were just sound bites,” Levin told National Journal.

In September, Politico credited Levin with persuading the GOP to “abandon its lock ‘em up mantra.” And indeed, many Republicans in Congress are moving away from the tough-on-crime philosophy that dominated the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. At a time when people complain about historic levels of gridlock, there is more bipartisan support for reforming the criminal-justice system than there has been in the past four decades.

Levin, the Right on Crime founder, says the financial burdens imposed by the justice system—which often disproportionately targets minorities and hamstrings those not wealthy enough to afford their own attorney—should especially outrage conservatives.

“Look, I’m a free-market guy, so I say the fact that rich people can get a better car, nicer jewelry, that’s all well and good. But here we’re talking about justice,” Levin said. “Conservatives ought to be particularly receptive to these things, and I think they are, because at some point it just becomes like a tax.”…

That human cost is very real. The violent-crime rate is the lowest it’s been in 20 years, yet there hasn’t been a corresponding decrease in incarceration. Nearly a third of the world’s female prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of children with a parent in prison increased by 80 percent—so widespread that Sesame Street recently aired a segment dealing with the issue.

The prison population is the oldest it’s ever been. In West Virginia, 20 percent of the prison population is over the age of 50. This raises the question: What is the advantage of the U.S. spending billions of dollars to house prisoners who may not present any real public danger?

Yet there is reason for optimism. Last year, the federal prison population decreased for the first time in several decades. And at the state level, governors have been quietly putting reforms in place for years. In November, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would reduce drug felonies to misdemeanors and use the budget surplus to fund social programs. Even in Texas—the bastion of the tough-on-crime mentality—Gov. Rick Perry has funneled money into special courts and rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism.

Criminal-justice reform has united other odd couples like Paul and Booker. In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill put forward by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island that would try to triage the likelihood that a prisoner would commit another crime, if released. The law would also give time credits to “low-risk” offenders and allow some to complete their prison sentences under “community supervision.”

Cornyn said it’s time to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to treating American prisoners.

“When I went to law school, we’d learn in criminal law class that rehabilitation was always one of the goals of our criminal justice system. But honestly, in my lifetime, we’ve done a lousy job at rehabilitating people,” Cornyn told National Journal. “Instead, they have taken an approach that’s more like warehousing people.”

Cornyn said he’s confident that if the GOP retakes the Senate in November, prison reform will be one area where they will be able to work with the White House. Even Whitehouse—Cornyn’s Democratic counterpart on this legislation—sees this as an upside to a possible Republican-controlled Congress.

“Frankly, I think the biggest danger to these bills is not really on their substance. It’s just the threat of partisan and obstructive mischief by the more extreme Republican senators,” Whitehouse told National Journal. “The motivation for that mischief evaporates once they’re in control.”

There you have it—prison reform, the final frontier of bipartisan legislation. But as Levin points out, there’s just one last thing for Republicans and Democrats working on the issue to sort out: “The only disagreement sometimes is who’s gonna get the credit.”

This article appears in the October 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.