Justice Reform in 2015 and Beyond

12/20/2015 08:18 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2016
Close up of two hands locked together
Close up of two hands locked together

Criminal justice reform is enjoying a moment of mainstream support: Mass incarceration is now widely recognized as wasteful, in terms of dollars and lives, and the language of reform has been echoed by politicians, pundits and the media throughout 2015.

Among the important milestones of 2015, President Obama made history as the first sitting president to prioritize comprehensive criminal justice reforms. During a speech to the NAACP, the President outlined a sweeping criminal justice reform agenda to roll back mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of drug offenses, review the use of solitary confinement, and invest in alternatives to incarceration. The President instructed Federal agencies to stop asking potential employees about criminal histories at the beginning of the selection process and became the first sitting chief executive to visit a federal prison. And with his most recent executive action, Obama also has commuted the sentences of more people than the last five presidents combined. Finally, changes to federal sentencing guidelines by the U.S. Sentencing Commission resulted in the historic release of more than six thousand people from federal prisons, and other changes to the guidelines will lead to over 10,000 prisoners having slightly shorter sentences in years to come.

The President and the Sentencing Commission are not the only catalysts for change. In California, the state began implementing voter initiated Prop 47, which changed low level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors for thousands of people, and created pathways for people with a conviction to expunge their records. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy proposed developmentally appropriate treatment of young adults in the justice system by raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in his state to age 21, and providing special confidentiality protections for adults under 25. And in states across the South, there have been bipartisan efforts to reduce incarceration and reinvest the savings towards efforts to keep people out of prison and reduce crime. Congress is also poised to pass bi-partisan criminal justice reform legislation, hopefully in early 2016.

For a country that far and away leads the world in incarceration, these are important signs of progress.

However, we cannot pop the champagne corks just yet. The latest prisoner statistics showed that there has only been a one percent reduction in the state and federal prison population -- nothing near the dramatic changes we need to see to bring real relief to the communities most impacted by incarceration. And we need to ensure that these efforts to include reducing incarceration for those imprisoned for violent crimes, not just non-violent drug offenders.

How can we ensure that recent and important efforts are the prequel to lasting and comprehensive reforms that dramatically reduce the use of incarceration?

First, policymakers could follow the President's lead: Like Obama, political leaders need to witness firsthand the failures of these institutions, and commit to substantial reform.

Second, we need transparency and oversight of the corrections system, and to engage those most impacted by the system in the movement to reduce prison populations. As the Marshall Project editor-in-chief Bill Keller laid out in a recent essay, there needs to be more media access to prisons and jails, to provide for accountability in our corrections systems, sustainability for the reform taking place, and as a way to engage the most impacted communities in reform. Keller notes that, "unless the men and women and children we incarcerate are visible, the clamor for reform is likely to be unsustainable -- a moment, but not a movement."

Shining a spotlight on what is happening in prisons, and building a movement of the most impacted communities to close prisons will make more money available to be reinvested in the kinds of services that promote safe and healthy communities. We should take the billions we are currently spending on prisons and jails, and make bigger investments in a public infrastructure that can house, employ, and meet people's treatment needs outside the criminal justice system.

Finally, while the communities most impacted by incarceration will build this movement, this work needs to be owned by everyone. The reach of the justice system is far and wide, and there are countless individuals whose direct experiences and leadership should shape the direction of reform.

Mass incarceration has reshaped and torn at the very fabric of our nation. To turn the tide, we all need to be a part of a broad and deep movement for reform. Together, we can make sure the next chapter is one built on promise rather than failure.