What Would a ‘More Humane’ Justice System Look Like?


With police shootings, prison crowding and other critical criminal justice issues in the news more than usual over the last year, activists are talking about criminal justice “reform;” but what shape should that reform take?

That's the subject of an ambitious project started by criminologist Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota Law School, who since 1979 has edited an annual volume on criminal justice research.

For next year's effort, which should be published early in the presidential election year, Tonry assembled a group of academic experts from across the criminal justice spectrum to present their best ideas of how to reform the system for the long haul.

The idea is to analyze what has been learned to date about crime trends and the criminal justice system, and propose new ways of delivering justice in the United States.

Tonry asked the experts to “present a vision of what more effective, more humane institutions, policies, and practices might look like, set out concrete proposals for realizing that vision, and explain why the proposals are desirable and plausible.”

Last week, the drafters and a group of commentators gathered in Minneapolis to discuss their ideas under the title, “Reinventing American Criminal Justice.” The drafts are not being publicly released while the writers make adjustments based on reactions expressed at the conference.

The Crime Report was invited to observe the process and summarize the major ideas under discussion, which were organized in these nine categories, with their authors:

1. Policing (Cynthia Lum, George Mason University and Daniel S. Nagin, Carnegie Mellon University)

Lum and Nagin assert two major principles for reform of policing in the U.S.: make crime prevention and not the number of arrests, the “primary metric for judging police effectiveness,” and that citizen response to the police and their tactics matter independent of officers' effectiveness.

The first probably would require a major change in police culture, but the authors contend that a focus on “sentinel-like activities that prevent crimes” would “avert the need for arrest and all its ensuing costs.” The proposal about the public would require “routinely, systematically, and rigorously surveying citizens on their reactions to the police in general and to specific tactics” and to report back on actions planned on both positive and negative responses.

2. Guns and Violence (David Hemenway, Harvard University)

Despite the decline in U.S. crime in recent years, the number of Americans killed by guns between 2000 and 2013 exceeded the total of all combat deaths in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Hemenway advocates a “public health” approach to cut the number of gun deaths, including personalized guns making them harder for unauthorized persons to use. He also urges better background checks, licensing for all gun purchases, and stricter rules on gun storage and theft. He would create a new federal agency on firearm safety or violence prevention, akin to the federal agency that deals with highway traffic safety.

3. Illegal Drugs (Jonathan P. Caulkins, Carnegie Mellon University and Peter Reuter, University of Maryland

Caulkins and Reuter have a five-part proposal that includes reducing marijuana enforcement, better management of problem drug users in the criminal justice system, opiate substitution therapy, cutting criminal sentence for drug offenses, and changing police priorities to reward efforts that reduce drug-related harms.

As it is, they say, there is too much concentration on statistics like quantities of drugs seized by police and the number of dealers arrested. One result is that drug markets have shown “amazing adaptability,” popping up in new locations after they are shut down in others.

4. Problematic Substance Abuse (Harold Pollack, University of Chicago)

Pollack would concentrate on addressing alcohol-related harms, such as by raising federal excise taxes or limiting ways people could get alcohol. He would review the effectiveness and breadth of drug courts, noting that many of them now will not accept defendants with serious criminal records, and others will not provide medication-assisted therapies. Jails and prison should do a better job of providing substance abuse treatment, he says.

If well implemented, the federal Affordable Care Act could provide the most important expansion of drug treatment in many years, he notes.

5. Prosecution (Ronald Wright, Wake Forest University)

Wright makes a dozen suggestions on reinventing the nation's prosecutorial functions, many of them increasing outside oversight of prosecutors. Among his ideas: allowing judges to review prosecutors' decisions not to file charges in a case, permitting prosecutors to seek reductions of earlier sentences in order to free up correctional resources, and requiring prosecutors to disclose their policies, priorities and statistics on their performance in order to enable comparison of prosecutors across a state.

6. Mentally Ill Offenders (Edward Mulvey and Carol Schubert, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Mulvey and Schubert estimate that with 12 million people in and out of local jails every year, jails may have 1.8 million contacts with seriously mentally ill people and daily responsibility for 110,000 of them. Most of these cases are not the extreme ones portrayed in the news media, the authors say, so the problem should not be viewed in “sensationalized, Home Box Office terms.”

They advocate better identification and characterization of people with mental health problems at each stage of the justice system, more “diversionary mechanisms” at earlier stages of case processing so that some defendants don't enter jails in the first place, better mental health treatment for those who are incarcerated, and improved plans for mentally ill offenders when they are released back to the community. One lesson is that, “We should not punish someone harshly for being sick,” Mulvey and Schubert say.

7. Parole Release (Edward Rhine and Kevin Reitz, University of Minnesota, and Joan Petersilia, Stanford University)

The authors say parole boards should not block releases based on an argument that inmates have not been punished enough but rather “based on credible assessment of risk of serious criminal conduct and readiness for reentry” into society. They argue that parole board decision-making should be “structured, policy-driven and transparent.”

Prisoners' rights in parole proceedings should be standardized, and crime victims should not be making recommendations on granting or denying parole, they say. They also contend that supervision of parolees should be tailored to specific needs and risks associated with an offender and that supervision should last no longer than five years.

8. Community Corrections (Francis T. Cullen, University of Cincinnati)

Cullen, with co-authors Cheryl Lero Jonson of Xavier University and Daniel P. Mears of Florida State University, contends that community corrections programs have had short shrift in an era of mass incarceration even through it is “irrational … to release more than 600,000 inmates annually with little idea how to prevent their reoffending.”

They contest the basic idea that imprisonment is the only appropriate response after many offenders' convictions. States should offer more subsidies to community corrections programs, partly by forcing communities to pay for sending their local convicts to prisons.

The authors urge a focus on reducing repeat criminality, saying that recidivism rates are not being reduced now for probationers and parolees because “nobody's job requires them to do so.” Among other recommendations are better use of technology in dealing with former offenders still under supervision, “leaving low-risk offenders alone whenever possible,” and permitting former convicts to be fully redeemed if they do not commit new offenses by expunging their records.

9. Sentencing (Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota)

Depending on which prisoners to count, the U.S. incarceration rate leads the world at about 700 per 100,000 population. Tonry proposes to cut it in half by 2020 and by 2030 to make it 150 per 100,000, which was the U.S. norm for a half century before 1973.

Among the ideas he advances: reduce “overbreadth of the criminal law,” repeal laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences, and direct prosecutors to use “structured programs for disposition of criminal cases” by means of defendants' agreements to pay fines, make restitution and perform community service.

Tonry would make all prisoners sentenced eligible for release after serving five years, much shorter than the eligibility for many current inmates. One commentator, Kevin Reitz of the University of Minnesota, said a proposal on sentencing reform needs an affirmative statement of what prisons should be used for, for example, to incapacitate people society is afraid of.

Several of the experts acknowledged that some of their proposals would be controversial or difficult to implement, but they contended that many of today's policy-makers in legislatures or executive offices are more amenable to making changes based on scientific evidence.

Some government officials and other non-academics were invited to comment on the proposals at the conference, including William Sabol, director of the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, Vincent Schiraldi of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office of Criminal Justice (and former New York City Probation Commissioner), Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, and Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice.

EDITORS NOTE: As part of its election-year campaign coverage, The Crime Report has proposed 13 questions for presidential contenders, which will be submitted to them during the campaign. For details, and comments,please click HERE.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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