Economic Criminal Justice Reform: States Set National Policy Agenda
By Kenneth R. Bazinet, Collective Consulting (C2), Partner
Crime doesn’t pay, as the saying goes, but the taxpayers certainly do, as everyone knows.
With a fiscal breaking point in sight and scant return on the investment, the government, and voters, are finally admitting that our expensive and disparate criminal justice system is saddled with ineffective laws and practices that are draining state and local government budgets with unequal results.
The a la carte menu of policies that need mending, according to experts in the field, includes ending needless laws, reducing prison populations, overhauling sentencing guidelines, restructuring prosecutor and public defender workloads, reining in law enforcement and ending conflict of interest practices in grand jury proceedings.
The remedies are equally assorted. Waves of legislation, ballot initiatives and executive actions are rolling across America with the goal of giving law enforcement, the courts and prisons a pragmatic makeover to relieve some of the pressure. It will take many years to repair the system, but a sweeping effort to do so is already underway.
And like a giant digital billboard in Times Square, it is hard to ignore that this movement to retool the patchwork criminal justice system in America is emerging as a rare bipartisan zeitgeist.
These issues bring together the political and ideological spectrum, partnering up players like progressive business magnate George Soros and libertarian energy mogul Charles Koch; “red state” Texas and “blue state” Massachusetts; liberal Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
Even with some national heavy-hitters in the mix, there is a grassroots component at work. Criminal justice reform is just the latest major issue driven by policy efforts in an overwhelming number of states and local communities, as a politically divided and stagnant federal government mostly watches from the sidelines.
This “think locally, act locally” activism has recently led to new state laws on minimum wage, the environment, guns, marijuana legalization, education, gay marriage and abortion issues, among many others. We may not agree with some of those results, but we can at least admit that while Washington has become the epicenter of government inaction, the states and communities have become ground zero this decade for policy change and new solutions.
No doubt congressional gridlock since 2011 has helped create what arguably has become the most sustained period of substantial state-led policy decisions since Reconstruction. As expected, states rights advocates are euphoric about that evolution.
The problems with the system are not new. Reformers have long asked the moral question: Should a free society allow anachronistic laws and unjustified prison sentences in non-violent crimes to target minorities, or unnecessarily ruin the lives of young people of any color who, for example, are caught with a small stash of marijuana?
As relevant as those soul-searching inquiries may be, taxpayer economics revolving around the criminal justice system is the real catalyst for action during these fiscal belt-tightening times. The burden placed on Americans to finance a system that spends too much time and money to pursue, prosecute and jail non-violent offenders is a driving force behind a movement spreading swiftly in the states.
These economic factors and limited resources are contributing to many Americans becoming more open-minded about reconsidering what is real crime and what is fair punishment. Once voters shift, politicians have little choice but to re-adjust their agendas, as well. The mainstream, middle class appeal of new revenue streams being created by marijuana legalization in the states is a signal that this trend is becoming the new normal.
Ultimately, everyone should be for law and order, but instead of wasting time on offenses that do not threaten people or property, Americans want police and the courts to focus on violent offenses and keeping their communities safe. With the help of the Justice Center at The Council of State Governments, dozens of states, some conservative and some liberal, are doing just that.
Texas, for instance, saved $443 million by decreasing the number of non-violent substance abusers it incarcerates, opting to divert them to treatment and education programs instead of prison.
“So instead of sending (drug offenders) to jail where they did not get better, (Texas) completely turned the whole system upside down,” Massachusetts state Senate President Stan Rosenberg, a reform advocate, told a gathering of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce recently.
Taxpayers pay an average of $31,286 annually to house each inmate in the U.S. – about the average price of tuition for a single student per year at private colleges and universities. Multiply that by the 2.2 million people now incarcerated in U.S. corrections facilities, and that adds up to a whopping $69 billion yearly in taxpayer dollars.
Equally daunting is that the U.S. currently locks up 600,000 more prisoners than China, and 1.5 million more inmates than Russia. Those comparisons are stark when you consider which of those three nations likes to call itself “a free country.”
The good news looking forward is that the alliances among political opposites, as well as public opinion, demonstrate the momentum in this arena is so powerful that even the gridlocked Congress is likely to wise up and follow the states’ lead on criminal justice reform. Republican Rand Paul is already making it an issue in his campaign for president, and more White House contenders will surely join the ranks before the Iowa caucuses are held next January.
[Update: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is also enlisting in the fight, calling for broad criminal justice reforms, including universal use of body cameras by police, and measures to try to tackle the nation's expensive and excessive incarceration rate].
But if lasting change is to come, some experts contend the effort to remedy all the complex problems within the legal system will have to expand beyond voter-driven ballot initiatives, legislative recourse, judicial fiat on the part of district attorneys and judges or executive action by mayors, governors and the president.
The entire legal system, the media, educators and other influencers also must rethink the shortcomings “and consider what equal and fair justice means, and how best to carry out the law,” legal scholar and attorney Jonathan Rapping detailed for me in an interview.
“This is an adaptive challenge," said Rapping, who heads Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based criminal defense advocacy center.
While laws, edicts or orders can lead to a successful quick fix, a wholesale cultural change likely will follow a much longer timeline. Rapping drew a vivid parallel between repairing the criminal justice system and the evolution of the civil rights movement.
"For Martin Luther King, the end wasn't the signing of a law," Rapping said.