Setting the Stage For Criminal Justice Reform

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Sculpture by John Vanek. Photo by Jason Taellious via Flickr

Talk about criminal justice reform has ebbed on Capitol Hill, but outside the legislative chambers, three major projects led by academics are underway that could set the stage for comprehensive changes at federal and state levels.

Two of the efforts are tied to this year’s 50th anniversary of the landmark criminal justice report issued by a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which was formally titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.” These two involve public presentations of papers this fall, with publication next spring.

The third is on a faster track. Publication is planned next month of more than 50 papers that were commissioned with a grant from the conservative Koch Foundation, which has involved liberal scholars and has not dictated an ideological bent.

The Koch-funded program is headed by Arizona State University law Prof. Erik Luna, who has assembled a large group dominated by law professors examining a long list of justice topics.

Under the title “Academy for Justice,” the project aims to “bridge the yawning gap between academic scholarship… and the reform of criminal justice in the real world.”

The papers are organized under five main subjects: criminalization, policing, pre-trial and trial processes, punishment, and incarceration and release. It is based partly on a conference held last winter in Arizona.

The contributors include conservatives such as University of Utah law Prof. Paul Cassell, writing about crime victims’ rights, as well as liberals like University of Minnesota law Prof. Michael Tonry, writing on “community punishments,” Rutgers criminologist Todd Clear and consultant James Austin, both of whom are writing on mass incarceration.

Luna says that the entire publication should be available in mid-October at

Next month, students at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., are sponsoring a two-day session keyed to the LBJ commission’s 50th anniversary. Like the Arizona State University project, this review is mainly being led by law professors such as Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia and Tracy Meares of Yale.

The school also will feature a panel that includes staff members of the original commission, and prominent justice system practitioners such as retired Judge Patricia Wald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The third criminal justice program was organized by the American Society of Criminology, whose annual convention in November in Philadelphia this year features the theme “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform: Fifty Years After the President’s Commission.”

A dozen scholars have been asked to address the major subjects that the LBJ panel dealt with, plus additional topics such as race and domestic violence. The criminologists are reviewing major developments in the last half-century in each field, and assessing what a new commission could accomplish.

Their findings will be presented at the November 15-18 criminology conference and published next year in the journal Criminology & Public Policy. The project, organized by Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists and The Crime Report, and criminologist Cynthia Lum of George Mason University, has obtained a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation that will enable it to hold briefings for members of Congress and their staffs and for state criminal justice policymakers.

Criminologist James Lynch of the University of Maryland, president of the criminology society, said, “Currently, there is a great deal of concern about our criminal justice system even in a time of historically low crime rates. A number of high profile politicians including Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) are joining calls for reform and a new assessment like the original commission. We are hoping that by asking criminologist in their annual meeting to assess the need for  and nature of a new commission through the prism of the original one, we can gain perspective on what is advisable and achievable today.”

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators is backing a bill to create a new commission that would comprise 14 members designated by the president or congressional leaders from each major party so that seven are named by Republicans and seven by Democrats.

A lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), says that “too many Americans see growing challenges in our justice system ranging from overburdened courts and unsustainable incarceration costs to strained relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Peters says a modern-day panel could “help reduce crime, improve public safety and promote more equitable criminal justice practices.”

Another key sponsor is Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who says that “strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and our communities begins with open dialogue, and through an objective review system we can modernize and reform our criminal justice system.”

A similar proposal by former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was approved by the House several years ago, but fell three votes short of 60 votes needed to add it to a bill in the Senate.

A task force on policing appointed by former President Barack Obama recommended that he appoint a criminal justice study commission, but he did not act on the proposal.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have not expressed a view on the idea of a new commission.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “Setting the Stage For Criminal Justice Reform

  1. Pingback: Criminal Justice Reform May Be Closer Than We Think – ForLiberty.News

  2. Ted, After working for 30 years in Federal system it is clear we are searching for things that we already have the answers to. Research studies and blue ribbon commissions of academics and lawyers are not the answer. Naïve billionaires like Mr. Soros and the Koch Brothers are being duped. Reform is big business similar to the Prison Industrial complex.

    The answers are in leadership, organizational culture, accountability and transparency. Until these fundamental shifts occur, reform will never happen. Treat the incarcerated like humans, put treatment and training expenditures on an equal footing with security, expand community involvement (institutions & non profits) will go farther than constantly trying to re-create the wheel!

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