THE BLOG
01/14/2015 04:23 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

After a Major Year for American Justice, Everything and Nothing Changed

Future generations might someday remember 2014 as a major year that changed everything and nothing for American justice. Not only did the Ferguson crisis spark some of the most intense media coverage on criminal justice in years, other events also drew extensive attention last year, from botched lethal injections to the increasingly bipartisan debate over reducing America's world record imprisonment levels. Nevertheless, few meaningful reforms appear on the horizon in 2015 notwithstanding calls for a fairer system by Barack Obama, Rand Paul, and various other political figures.

A Peculiar Brand of Justice

While American justice has long been extraordinarily repressive and discriminatory, the events of 2014 arguably led more people to realize the magnitude of the problem.

The refusal to indict policemen Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York -- not even for lesser charges of criminal negligence or recklessness -- stands in sharp contrast to the normal harshness of the U.S. justice system. The routine infliction of draconian punishments on racial minorities and the poor has led America towards the world's highest incarceration rate. America has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners.

Of course, the facts in Michael Brown's controversial case remain in dispute, Darren Wilson is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and U.S. law gives significant leeway to the police in using force. Despite these nuances, glaring double standards exist given the very low burden of proof to secure an indictment. Virtually all criminal cases make it past the grand jury stage except those involving police officers. In addition, once they are convicted low-income Americans tend to receive extremely lengthy sentences that regularly violate international human rights standards.

America equally remains the only Western democracy with the death penalty, although nearly all the prisoners it executes are racial minorities or indigent people, including poor whites. The botched lethal injections of Clayton Lockett, Joseph Wood, and Dennis McGuire in 2014 exemplified the peculiar ruthlessness of American justice in the modern democratic world. But these prisoners' agonizing deaths, described as "torture" by numerous U.S. and foreign commentators, raised a more fundamental question about the death penalty: whether the recurrent search for "painless" methods of execution is truly animated by empathy for executed prisoners -- who could easily be imprisoned rather than put to death -- or by the executioners' efforts to ease their own qualms about killing prisoners. Lethal injection has long been made to resemble a medical procedure yet its purpose is precisely the opposite of medical treatment.

On the other hand, 2014 was the year in which the lowest number of executions occurred in America since 1994, as well as the lowest number of death sentences in 40 years. Thirty-five prisoners were put to death in 2014, still enough to place America on the list of countries leading the world in executing their own citizens along with authoritarian regimes like China, North Korea, and Iran. While no American state this year joined the 18 states having abolished capital punishment, the relative drop in executions suggests growing reservations among the U.S. public about the death penalty due to procedural problems like racial discrimination or the exoneration of innocents on death row.

Extensive Debate, Few Reforms

Various media reports describe a growing bipartisan consensus among Democratic and Republican politicians about the need to make the justice system less punitive and especially reduce the nation's colossal prison population. While they may be encouraging, similar reports have been published since at least 2006. America still has approximately 2.2 million prisoners, basically the same number as in 2006. Limited progress on the issue is partly explainable by how leaders of both parties have either embraced the "tough on crime" ideology or the fear of looking "soft on crime."

To his credit, the increasingly popular Rand Paul has been more outspoken than most politicians in advocating for criminal justice reform. However, his proposals for a more humane justice system may reflect a strategy aiming to seem conciliatory towards African-American voters, especially given his reservations about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and allegations that his father Ron Paul published racist newsletters.

Rand and Ron Paul's iconic support for criminal justice reform at times seems incoherent from a legal standpoint. Both are deeply skeptical of federal power, although many significant criminal justice reforms over the past century have come from federal intervention, such as the Supreme Court's landmark 1961 decision in Mapp v. Ohio that strengthened the Fourth Amendment's ban on unconstitutional police searches. In other words, if Rand Paul were elected president in 2016 or beyond, it is doubtful that he could achieve broad criminal justice reforms while simultaneously opposing federal intervention in the name of "states' rights" or libertarian principles.

In any event, the federal government lacks jurisdiction over the majority of criminal justice issues, which are handled at the local level. The odds are therefore not high that a potential Rand Paul presidency could lead to the major criminal justice reforms that never came to pass during the Obama presidency despite great expectations.

Criminal justice reform is a particularly difficult task because prisoners come across as unsympathetic or evil people to much of the public -- regardless of mitigating circumstances behind their conduct or the fact that many serve lengthy sentences for petty drug offenses and other relatively minor crimes. Non-violent offenders represent over 60 percent of U.S. prisoners. Yet, the debate sparked by the Ferguson crisis confirmed that numerous Americans think that the U.S. justice system is neither discriminatory nor excessively harsh. Still, a growing share of Americans seem concerned about the unfairness of the justice system, which suggests that meaningful reforms might eventually draw broader support if more politicians are willing to risk defending the rights of the least popular members of society.