Why Judges Can Be Advocates for Change


Judges have typically stayed out of policy development, but recently some in the judiciary have become active in seeking reforms to curb mass incarceration and high recidivism rates, according to the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

For a new policy brief, researchers for the Project interviewed four justices who have advocated for reforms on the statewide level. They explained what motivated them to get involved.

“Judges are not policymakers, but sentencing is key in any criminal justice reform effort, and so, if our voice were missing, it would have left a big hole in the discussion,” said Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton, Jr.

For Oregon Supreme Court Paul De Muniz, that meant equipping the justice system with a modern approach to criminal analysis.

“After 23 years on the bench, I saw the need for reforms that were evidence-based and used risk assessment tools to really deal with the character of the offender and the character of the offense,” De Muniz said.

The justices all agreed that in order to successfully implement reforms, all three branches of government need to be in agreement. That's often easier said than done.

“The challenge came from the prosecuting attorneys, who get elected by being aggressive enforcers …. The difficulty was convincing them that length of sentence isn't always the best measure of the justice system,” said William Ray Price Jr., a former Missouri Supreme Court justice.

Still many justices shy away from advocacy and policymaking, but according to Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, judges might be among the most well-equipped to tackle criminal justice reform.

“Judges need to be involved. We understand the judicial system and the impact of legislation on citizens and our criminal justice system,” Hunstein said.

Read the Pew Public Safety Performance Project brief HERE.

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