THE BLOG

Our Criminal-Legal System: Justice Doesn't Have to Be Missing from Equation

04/15/2015 03:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015
Sen. Cory Booker

The facts about the criminal-legal system in America are sobering: The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the globe's population, but for 25 percent of the world's prison population.

We lead the world not in science and math education, college graduation or childhood health -- but in the total number of people we incarcerate. We imprison more people than China, Russia, and India.

The United States not only has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but our prison populations are disproportionately comprised of Americans of color.

Despite African Americans and Latinos committing drug offenses at a rate no different than whites, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times greater than whites, and Latinos are incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of whites for the same offenses.

In my home state of New Jersey, African Americans comprise 13.7 percent of the total population, but 62 percent of the state's prison population.

In the United States, African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing drugs, even though studies have shown that African Americans and whites use drugs at the same rate, and whites are actually more likely to sell drugs.

Similarly, Latinos and whites use drugs at equal rates proportionate to their populations, but Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be admitted to state prison for drug use.

Even once released from prison, formerly incarcerated people are often denied the right to vote, to go back to school, and to get a job.

Justice appears to have gone missing from the equation.

But, it doesn't have to be.

As Mayor of Newark and now as Senator, I have seen firsthand just how broken the criminal-justice system in our country is and how it actually adds to criminality -- by perversely encouraging recidivism instead of successful community reentry.

But I've also seen how a business owner who gives their neighbor with a criminal record a second chance can change the course of a life. I've seen how an expungement clinic can open up doors for folks who believed there was no way to escape the burden of their past.

Now, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have come together to propose reforms to our broken criminal-justice system. This year, I was proud to introduce the REDEEM Act, a bill supported by Democrats and Republicans, that gives Americans who have been convicted of non-violent crimes the chance to seal their criminal records, while cutting costs to taxpayers and reducing rates of recidivism. Additionally, I was proud to co-sponsor the Smarter Sentencing Act, which gives federal judges the ability to issue more reasonable and fair sentences in cases of non-violent offenses.

I'm proud that Republican and Democratic lawmakers from states across the country have come together to make concrete changes to the way their states prosecute and imprison nonviolent offenders.

Liberals and libertarians, fiscal conservatives and die-hard Democrats, along with many others, are forming unique partnerships to roll back mandatory-minimum penalties, enact bail reform, expand drug treatment, and push for many other reforms to our justice system.

States across the country -- from New Jersey to Texas, California, Virginia, Hawaii, Wyoming, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Colorado, New York, South Carolina, Alaska, and Georgia -- all are enacting reforms, resulting in drops in both their incarceration and crime rates. Their reforms prove we do not have to lock up more people to create safer communities.

And at the #Cut50 Bipartisan Summit this past month, lawmakers, national leaders, and activists who might otherwise agree on very little joined together to discuss the issues that continue to stand between the fair application of justice and our legal system.

All across this country, communities, cities, and states are working to advance our national ideals of "equal justice under the law."

It is the duty of our nation's lawmakers to elevate this work and to replicate it at the federal level.

Passing legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act and the REDEEM Act are important first steps for Congress to take.

The work of overcoming injustice in America has never been a question of "can we?" But "will we?" I know, if we have the courage to follow the example of many states that are expanding what we know works and are ending what is counterproductive, we will overcome.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.