U.S. Needs ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Sentencing, Summit Told

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Photo by Joe Gratz via Flickr

The nation needs to fundamentally rethink who is brought into the criminal justice system and how they are sentenced, a summit hosted by the Aleph Institute was told Monday.

“The paradigm shift should focus not on crime-fighting but [on] community protection,” said John Gleeson, a former U.S. District Judge for New York and one of the speakers at Rewriting the Sentence, the summit held at the Columbia University Law School.

Alternatives to incarceration such as rehabilitation programs, restorative justice practices, and community service-based solutions are positive steps that have shown to increase public safety, panelists said.

Criminal justice reform requires programs to support and reinvest in the potential of those convicted of crimes, and prioritize their mental health, said Esther Salas, a U.S. District Judge from New Jersey.

“People need to be seen and encouraged,” Salas said. “Many of these people have been told their whole lives that they are worthless.”

Matthew Alsdorf, the founder and president of Pretrial Advisors, recommended that the system of money bail be eliminated, because it jails low-risk individuals who cannot pay while allowing high-risk individuals who can to go free.

“We are asking the wrong question when it comes to pretrial detention,” he said. “The right question is: should this defendant be detained?”

Alsdorf continued, “The question that judges answer is: How much money should this defendant pay to get out of jail?”

Joanna Weiss, the co-founder and co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center argued the U.S. should work toward the elimination of criminal fees and fines, which have the effect of  criminalizing poverty.

“This really creates two tiers of justice,” Weiss explained. “All those who can pay and leave the system and walk away have one form of punishment. For the people who can’t afford to pay, they end up getting further and further entrenched in the system, until they enter an endless cycle of punishment and also an entrenchment of poverty.”

Weiss pointed to a prominent example of this phenomenon in which individuals who cannot pay their fees have their driver’s license suspended. Because most people need to drive to carry out their basic functions, such as going to their job, these people drive anyway and face criminal charges when they do so.

In many states, driving with a suspended license is one of the most common convictions.

Racial justice needs to be at the forefront of the movement for criminal justice reform, and grassroots organizations need to be the leading voices, said Udi Ofer, the director of the campaign for Smart Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ofer pointed to Germany as an example of a country that has learned from the harm caused during the Holocaust and transformed its justice system to be more humane and focused on reducing recidivism.

“Until we recognize the connection between slavery and mass incarceration –that is so real in places where we literally have prisons built on former slave plantations– we are never going to be able to have racial justice be the center of the conversation,” Ofer said.

The summit continued Tuesday.

Maria Trovato is a TCR News Intern.

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