A Post-Election Justice Reform Agenda


President Barack Obama's re-election comes with a second-term mandate to further address the increased criminalization of behavior, our nation's overreliance on mass incarceration, and the lifetime punishment that stems from involvement in the criminal justice system.

In our current criminal justice system, 2.3 million people are in prison or jail across the country and nearly 7 million are under state and federal supervision.

Most of these individuals have lost their right to vote because of their criminal record,but they all have a tremendous stake in the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election.

For too long, prisons and jails have served as the repository for the people who are the products of our failed education, housing, healthcare and economic development policies.

This is not a partisan issue.

In fact, it was President George W. Bush who inspired the nation to pay closer attention to mass incarceration and reentry in his 2004 State of the Union address, where he called for broad bipartisan support, including the backing of law enforcement, state and local government, and religious and social service organizations to address the problem.

In addition to saving lives, supporting impacted families and strengthening affected communities, he knew that there was considerable potential in cost savings and improved public safety.

During President Obama’s first term, we saw evidence of additional progress, including the signing of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for powder and crack cocaine.

The Administration has also shown support for the expansion of diversion programs which mandate people charged with drug related crimes into treatment instead of prison. The Obama Administration continues to support the Second Chance Act which provides resources across the country for innovative, evidence-based reentry efforts to reduce crime.

The Department of Justice launched a Federal Interagency Reentry Council and urged state attorney generals to review and consider eliminating the legal collateral consequences that create counterproductive barriers to successful reentry.

All of these efforts are a step in the right direction.

However if we’re truly going to move forward as a nation, then we must acknowledge that there is much more work to be done to reform the criminal justice system.

First, when you identify unfairness in the system, you must work to eradicate it, not reduce it.

During his second term, Obama’s Administration must work with Congress to finish the job of eliminating mandatory minimums and the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity.

Secondly, law enforcement’s illegitimate utilization of Stop and Frisk and other bias policing practices must cease immediately and be replaced with sensible, evidence-based community policing strategies, such as the ones recommended by the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services [COPS] program.

If not, we will continue to diminish police legitimacy and reduce public safety in the communities that need the most support.

Thirdly, prison-based programming has been decimated over the past two decades, including the massive reduction in vocational training and the virtual elimination of college programs.

President Obama must prioritize the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, as well as repeal the Drug Felony Ban on Financial Aid.

Finally, we should right-size the system by expanding the utilization of a holistic array of community based diversion programs for appropriate defendants.

For too long, criminal justice policymaking has been reactionary, driven by fear and emotion and increasingly responsive to special interests that stand to gain from the system’s expansion. If we’re going to successfully stem the tide of people who are relegated to being part of the newly manufactured underclass in America, these tactics must end.

If our President is truly dedicated to moving this country forward, he has an obligation to show renewed leadership in this area by working across party lines to end our overreliance on incarceration as a response to crime.

Glenn Martin is Vice President of Development and Public Affairs and Director of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at The Fortune Society, Inc. To keep up with him on Twitter, follow @GlennEMartin. He welcomes comments from readers.

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