Criminal justice reforms are under attack in the Trump era and require immediate attention from state and local governments, as well as action from the formerly incarcerated, according to a Yale Law professor.
Author Miriam Gohara, writing in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said that progressive criminal justice reformers must remain vigilant to threats against rollbacks of mass incarceration, particularly when Attorney General Jeff Sessions “has redoubled his commitment to policies designed to put more people behind bars.”
Gohara cited Sessions’s May 2017 memorandum to U.S. Attorneys requiring federal line prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charges against defendants as one rollback to criminal justice reform.
The memo rescinded then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2013 directive that federal prosecutors should avoid charges to which mandatory minimum sentences would apply to certain low-level non-violent drug offenders.
Aside from “executive branch policy,” she also noted Sessions has remained staunchly opposed to legislative sentencing reform, even when his stance puts him at odds with congressional Republicans and other conservatives.
For instance, during President Trump’s first year in office, Republican Senator Charles Grassley introduced a criminal justice reform bill that included provisions curtailing the applicability of mandatory minimums and reducing enhanced penalties for previous drug crimes.
Sessions, citing concerns about rising violent crime rates, called the bill a “grave error.”
Gohara proposed that justice reform should be left to local governments and formerly incarcerated.
More, she suggested that they focus on reforms that address non-violent crime.
First, she advised local policymakers reward, replicate, and expand local reforms because the building blocks of mass incarceration were laid by countless state and federal politicians, policymakers, prosecutors, and judges for the past four decades.
But local governments also have the power to unravel mass incarceration, if they so choose.
“The good news is new initiatives have begun in many places, and federal policy will have little, if any, detrimental effect on most state and local reforms,” Gohara wrote.
Non-violent should be at the heart of criminal justice reform, she continued.
Notably, most Americans are sitting in prison for non-violent offenses, which is why “any meaningful dismantling of mass incarceration will need to reckon with punishment for violent offenses.”
Last, Gohara argued formerly incarcerated people have a large role to play in justice reform. They should be “co architects” of a new framework for justice.
In reality, imprisoned people are also disproportionately victimized by crime.
So, by bringing together the formerly incarcerated population and victims of crime, both parties can work together to reform the system.
This “creates a powerful opportunity for crime survivors who have served time in prison to join forces with those who have not to identify a reform agenda that treats everyone swept into the criminal justice system with humanity,” the law professor concluded.
A full copy of the report can be found here.
Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.