Will 2016 be a year of significant change in the criminal justice system or another election year filled with lots of rhetoric and little action?
A coalition of reform advocates is cautiously predicting some real movement, based largely on a flurry of speeches this year from some visible members of both major political parties and action by two key congressional committees.
The U.S. Justice Reform Action Network, made up of conservative and liberal organizations that include the American Civil Liberties Union, Right on Crime, the NAACP, and Americans for Tax Reform, issued a report yesterday asserting that criminal justice reform had become a topic of discussion not only in legislative bodies but also “in living rooms, at dinner tables, in schools and churches, and by people of every political stripe, in every age range, in every community across the country.”
That may be somewhat of an exaggeratiion, but the group is targeting legislative efforts both in Congress and in states it said are “poised for progress,” starting with Louisiana, which has the nation’s highest incarceration rate.
Other states high on the group’s list include Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.
The group touts a “reform” agenda, but what reforms are possible varies from place to place. On Capitol Hill and in some states, the emphasis is on cutting prison populations by eliminating or at least limiting mandatory minimum sentences.
Some state proposals concentrate on improving prospects for former prisoners by making it easier for them to obtain jobs and housing and to expunge old criminal records.
Another major thrust involves limiting “civil asset forfeiture,” in which law enforcement agencies have readily seized assets of suspects, including many who never end up being convicted of crimes. In fact, forfeiture reform–making it harder for police and prosecutors to seize defendants’ property–gets the highest supporting numbers in some opinion surveys of any major proposals for change.
If anything, the action network’s new report showed how long it takes for change to occur in the justice process The group cited “tremendous progress” this year in three big states, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but a close look at the specifics it mentioned showed that most of them involved pending legislation that may or may not be enacted.
That is also true in Congress, where some reformers have tried to cut back on mandatory minimum sentences almost since they were passed in the aftermath of a drug epidemic in the mid-1980s.
Bills dealing with sentencing were approved this fall by Judiciary Committees in both houses, but the network acknowledges that neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) nor House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) have promised to bring them to a floor debate any time soon. President Barack Obama has spoken out on the issue and had called for final action this year, which did not get close to happening.
Because both Congress and state legislatures tend to take many fewer actions on legislation in election years, the action network warned yesterday of a “narrowing window of opportunity…with the 2016 election cycle kicking into high gear.” Translation: if bills aren’t passed in the next few months, they won’t get through in 2016.
Another worry of reformers is that crime increases in some cities as well as rising fears of terrorism after shootings in San Bernardino, Ca., and elsewhere will be cited to oppose justice reform.
Speaking for another group of reformers, former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said yesterday that, “some cities have seen a rise in murder, but these are isolated incidents—not a new crime wave—which local leaders are taking steps to address.”
He added that with “incarceration levels in this country [that] have reached a crisis point, we cannot let sensational headlines slow the momentum to reduce unnecessary incarceration.”
Serpas’ state of Louisiana may serve as a case study in whether the reform effort can succeed. As of last year, Louisiana imprisoned 816 people per 100,000 residents, far above the national average of 471, said the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of inmates in the state dropped between 2013 and 2014 from a little over 39,000 to slightly over 38,000.
The action network issued a survey last month showing that 82 percent of Louisiana voters support criminal justice reform, including more than 90 percent favoring rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders.
The state soon will have a new governor, with John Bel Edwards replacing Bobby Jindal. Edwards supports cutting the prison population by 5,500 partlly through expanding treatment options for nonviolent offenders, says the Baton Rouge Advocate, but the newspaper notes that Edwards comes from a family of sheriffs and that the state sheriffs’ association “historically has greeted calls for prison reform warily.”
Whether or not much legislation actually passes this year, one of the action network’s predictions seems very likely to happen, based on this year’s campaigns in advance of Republican and Democratic caucuses and primary elections–that “criminal justice reform will continue making appearances in stump speeches, rallies, and interviews by those running for the White House.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers comments.