05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Toward Real Criminal Justice Reform

The recent guilty pleas of two corrupt Luzerne County, Pennsylvania juvenile court judges is further evidence that the U.S. criminal justice system is shot through with corruption and has a penchant for punishment over rehabilitation that only serves the interests of politicians who want to give the appearance of making the public safer. And too often, public opinion is satiated by reactionary public policy such as "three strikes" that fails to address the root causes of crime and violence. Studies from The Sentencing Project, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the National Urban League, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation show that America's rush to incarcerate has exploded state and federal corrections budgets, forced early parole for some inmates for lack of prison space, made millionaires of private prison operators, and made more difficult the reentry of people who can become productive citizens if given the opportunity.

The current system also maintains the race-based disparities that have devastated some African American communities. According to the Sentencing Project, one in eight African American males in their twenties are in prison or jail on any given day. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that African Americans represent 46 percent of the 2.4 million people currently incarcerated, despite being 12 percent of the general U.S. population. African Americans comprise at least 50 percent of the prison populations in 12 of the 51 states (including the District of Columbia). The disproportionate warehousing of Black men in the name of public safety has helped to destabilize African American families around the nation by removing potential fathers and husbands when alternatives could make more sense.

However, there may be reasons for optimism. In March of this year, Senators James Webb and Arlen Specter introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. According to Mr. Webb's release, this bill will "create a blue-ribbon commission [that will conduct] an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation's entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform." Webb noted in a March speech on the Senate floor introducing the bill that "to look at all of the elements in this system, how they are interrelated in terms of the difficulties that we have in remedying issues of criminal justice in this country and to deliver us from a situation that has evolved over time where we are putting far too many of the wrong people into prison and we are still not feeling safer in our neighborhoods, we're still not putting in prison or bringing to justice those people who are perpetrating violence and criminality as a way of life." This is particularly notable in the Washington, D.C.-area, where criminal justice reform is desperately needed.

According to Webb, the United States, with just five percent of the world's population, now incarcerates 25 percent of the world's reported prisoners. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200 percent in the last 30 years. Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.

My analysis indicates that the near eradication of serious rehabilitation opportunities in prison, coupled with ineffective re-entry programs, almost guarantees high recidivism rates and only perpetuates an unfortunate, wasteful cycle. In some states, the training one receives while incarcerated cannot help them once paroled. California, for example, provides barber training for inmates but, in ridiculous decision, the state legislature bars parolees from obtaining barbering licences.

Mr. Webb's task is difficult. Advocating radical reform of America 's criminal justice system is not a popular position to take. It's a issue that easily falls prey to demagoguery; I can almost hear the "soft on crime" charges already. However, there is a possibility that the nation will move away from the incarceration-only view of criminal justice and public safety. the difficult economic times the country faces may lead people to more carefully consider what government is doing with its tax revenue in this costly government service. With the Webb-Specter bill as a guide, stakeholders and citizens may work together to pass this bill and provides the unassailable evidence necessary to undo the intractable problems in the nation's criminal justice system.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, a former analyst in American national government at the Congressional Research Service, and a research analyst at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He blogs at