Some of the most embattled elements of the U.S. justice system, ranging from prisons to prosecutors, are emerging as targets of a rejuvenated reform movement in the Trump era, led by partisans on both sides of the political divide.
The broad outlines of that movement emerged Wednesday during the final day of a “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College, where prominent conservatives joined liberals and activists in setting a shared agenda for fixing a system that one said was “impoverishing American society.”
“The issue is bigger than any red-blue divide,” said Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries, Inc., often vilified by liberals for spending millions on ultra-conservative causes.
“It’s about transforming lives.”
Holden said the transformation had to include preparing incarcerated individuals to re-enter civilian society from the first day they were locked behind bars.
“There needs to be a personalized plan that sets them up for success—we owe them that,” he said, suggesting that programs for counseling, employment and education should become central to correction authorities’ thinking.
Later in the conference, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark NJ, said efforts to reduce prison populations needed to include re-thinking the lengthy punishments meted out to individuals convicted of violent offenses.
Not all “violent” offenders deserved being locked up for decades—especially when they could demonstrate a change in behavior and attitudes during their time inside, he said.
“Does society stop its ideals of redemption and forgiveness when somebody raises a fist?” Booker asked.
Speakers said the urgency of making major system-change had increased under a new administration in Washington that seemed bent on reversing even the initial reforms of the past decade.
“At a time when the government is moving off the playing field, and the White House is asking us to solve our own problems, we have to collaborate,” said Manhattan (NY) District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., who argued prosecutors around the country need to focus more attention on preventing people from going to prison, rather than on sending them there.
Is Trump a Boon to Reformers?
Some speakers in fact said the election of Donald Trump has helped revive a reform movement which had taken for granted that the positive trend begun during the Obama era would continue.
“One of the best things that could have happened is Trump as president,” said former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who retired last year after a celebrated 14-year career in the National Football League to devote time to his foundation devoted to helping underprivileged youth, as well as engage in justice reform causes.
“When Obama was in office everybody felt protected, but with Trump a lot of people feel the need to empower themselves,” said Boldin, who recalled his cousin had been killed two years ago during an encounter with police.
The recent controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem was an example of players realizing their power to promote change, he said.
“When I get pulled over by a cop, and he recognizes who I am, he starts asking me for an autograph for his son, but had I not been in the NFL that interaction would be a lot different.”
Vance said changing prosecutors’ approach was a way of eliminating the entrenched bias of the justice system.
When he began working the “lobster shift” from 1 am to 9 am as a young assistant DA in New York in the 1980s, 90 percent of the individuals waiting for their cases to be adjudicated were people of color.
“Thirty-five years later when I returned to the system, it was the same,” he said.
Calling on the 2,800 elected DA’s around the country to “step outside their roles and focus on prevention,” Vance said measures his office had already instituted to slash criminal court dockets by diverting low-level offenders to alternative courts and working with police to reduce “quality of life” arrests had not caused any uptick in crime rates.
“We’ve rethought our decisions about who comes into the justice system,” said Vance, noting that his office had also begun to finance prevention, diversion and counseling programs with over $800 million in funds provided from fines and penalties assessed against banks accused of violating U.S. sanctions.
He was echoed by Mark Gonzalez, a former defense lawyer recently elected DA of Nueces County in south Texas, who said he had persuaded prosecutors on his staff as well as the conservative politicians in his area to consider the “collateral damage” done to individuals sentenced to harsh prison terms, and develop a less-adversarial approach.
“Being tougher on crime is easy,” he said. “Being smart on crime is a challenge.”
Most of Wednesday’s speakers agreed that fundamental reform would allow authorities to focus on individuals who were genuine dangers to public safety and needed to be kept in detention for long periods.
Americans Under Stress
But Booker said the reform movement also needed to take into account both the system’s deep racist roots and the burden it placed on Americans already under economic stress.
“Half of American workers make $15 or less an hour,” said Booker. “With one encounter with the criminal justice system—especially if you can’t pay bail—you could lose your job or housing and spiral downwards in the richest country on earth.”
Booker said the problem was aggravated by the fact that those hardest hit by both economic stress and the inequities of the justice system were African Americans and Latinos.
“In a nation that desperately needs all its players on the field, how can you have a system that systematically oppresses people of color?” asked Booker, who last June co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, intended to walk the country back from the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1990s.
Supporters of the bill—a similar one was introduced in the House last month by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA)—claim it will reduce the number of incarcerated by 20 percent under a 10-year plan of providing some $20 billion in federal incentive grants.
“We have to educate people to the outrageousness of the system,” said Booker, who also introduced with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the REDEEM Act, which included a series of federal measures aimed at helping both adults and young people seal criminal records for nonviolent offenses in an effort to improve their chances of rejoining civil society as productive citizens.
These and similar reform measures, such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, are languishing in Congress because of the opposition of powerful conservatives, including former Sen. Jeff Sessions—now Attorney General.
But Holden of Koch Industries pointed out that the case for making fundamental change was shared by many who felt the justice system was just another example of a “failed big government program.”
“It spends millions of dollars each year with poor results,” observed Holden, citing as an example the War on Drugs, which he said has left illegal drug use at a higher level than it was four decades after the war was declared.
“Drugs won the war on drugs,” said Holden.
What became clear over the course of sessions dealing with the opiate crisis, community corrections technology, and violence reduction, was that many of the most vocal advocates for change shared a poignant awareness that they could have been caught in the justice system themselves.
Holden, who said he grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Worcester, MA, said many of his former high school classmates had been locked up for drug and other offenses.
“I could easily have ended up the same way, given our circumstances,” he said, noting that how you were treated by courts and police was determined by race and class.
In a “two-tier” justice system, he said, “Rich people always get a better deal.”
Booker said he is the only U.S. senator he knows who goes home to a constituency where most families live below the poverty line median annual income of $14,000.
“When I walk around my neighborhood I can’t tell you how many young people want to talk to be about their convictions.”
Alphonso David, General Counsel for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the racial inequities of the system were hard to miss.
“When I visit any of the 54 prisons in New York State, I’m still struck by the (awareness) that I am a black man walking into a prison operated by white officers,” he said.
David acknowledged that reforms to correction systems also had to take into account that resistance to closing prisons was led by corrections unions and politicians in areas where they were the only source of good jobs.
He said legislators needed to develop new sources of economic support for those communities.
But there was broad consensus among speakers at this week’s conference that reducing prison numbers, combined with a smarter strategy, to help the incarcerated re-enter society was critical.
“Real reformation starts inside the prison, not outside,” said Daryl Harris, who runs TLC Ministries in inner-city Detroit.
Harris, noting that his neighborhood was nicknamed by local residents “1482-Die” because it registered the majority of Detroit homicides, told the conference that reform had to begin with support for restorative justice that included faith-based programs established inside the prison system itself.
Without attention to developing an inmate’s “good heart,” the problems that “brought you into prison in the first place will lead you right back inside,” he said.
Attendees at the conference included community activists, advocates and justice practitioners around the U.S.
John Jay College President Karol Mason told them that the conference left a clear message; “Do not be discouraged.”
She called on them to return to their communities and continue to advocate “that the system lives up to the ideals this country was founded on.”
She appealed for their help in preserving some of the programs instituted during her years in the Justice Department, such as assistance to the children of incarcerated parents, the Second Chance Pell Grants, and help for male survivors of violence.
“It’s our job,” said Mason, who was a former senior Justice official before taking up her John Jay appointment in August. “To make sure that the tools that we need to be able to make our communities safer still exist.”
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of the Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.