Justice Reform, At Long Last

Post Date: February 20, 2014

(Huffington Post) — Decades after the start of the so-called “tough on crime” era, the U.S. slowly seems to be inching away from the failed policies that have made it the world’s largest incarcerator (the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population and about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners).

Last year, in an important speech, Attorney General Eric Holder laid out a set of promising reforms at the federal level, including doing away with draconian mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. In January, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act, the biggest federal drug sentencing overhaul in decades. It lowers mandatory minimums for some drug crimes, giving judges more discretion on sentencing. This month, AG Holder called for eliminating the barriers to voting that disenfranchise millions of Americans with prior felony convictions on their records. 

There’s good news at the state and local levels as well, with a handful of states — such as Texas and New York — closing prisons by investing in treatment and community-based supervision, and New York City moving away from discriminatory “stop and frisk” practices. A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice also shows that at least 29 states have taken steps to roll back mandatory sentences since 2000.

For those of us who consider criminal justice reform to be one of the leading civil rights issues of our time, these are hopeful signs that we might be entering a new era. We are no longer turning a blind eye to the damage being done to our communities by an out-of-control criminal justice system, or ignoring the pervasive racial bias that undermines the very legitimacy of the system itself. Read more