Thursday, November 15, 2018

Coming Together on Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal justice reform, with the aim of getting less dangerous convicts out of prison and thus off the public dole, has been gaining strength across the nation since Texas enacted a major reform in 2007. The cause is not hard to seek: the great decline in crime we have seen since the peak in the mid 1980s. People are less afraid and therefore more willing to consider the downside of locking them up and throwing away the key. Change has been pushed from both from civil libertarians on the left and two groups on the right, fiscal hawks and Evangelicals who have invested heavily in prison ministries. Post-Ferguson exposés of the ways some local jurisdictions use fines and the threat of jail time to extort money from poor citizens have also played a part, especially in moves to reduce bail for non-murderous offenders.

Now even President Trump is on board:
President Trump threw his support behind a substantial revision of the nation’s prison and sentencing laws on Wednesday, opening a potential path to enacting the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation. . . .

“In many respects, we’re getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals — of which, unfortunately, there are many,” said Mr. Trump, flanked by Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials. “But we’re treating people differently for different crimes. Some people got caught up in situations that were very bad.”
The key elements of this reform are using separate drug courts or other means to keep drug users out of prison, and reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences. This is where I have always put my own emphasis. Criminals are not all the same, but mandatory minimums required judges to lock up even those who didn't seem dangerous for very long terms. Legislators cannot take the differences between people into account, so instead of trying to specify the appropriate sentence in advance they should leave it up to judges who have actually seen the defendant and reviewed the case to do that. Obviously judges will make mistakes, but it seems to me that leaving open the possibility for clemency for hard luck cases is important to achieving anything like real justice.


Shadow said...

And it won't always be only judges. Social workers, psychologists, and other experts will interview and provide recommendations on many cases. This is a good idea.

"Post-Ferguson exposés of the ways some local jurisdictions use fines and the threat of jail time to extort money from poor citizens have also played a part, especially in moves to reduce bail for non-murderous offenders."

Not all hamlets can afford to be their own jurisdictions, and I wish states would recognize this and try to legislate some sort of solution. If you can't afford the two-man police force and the judge and mayor without creating speed traps and other revenue making schemes, maybe you can't afford to be your own town and need to be incorporated into a larger one.

Unknown said...

I'm well among those who think Trump is a dangerous race-baiter and demagogue who's been a disaster for the country. But if he could achieve this, that would be wonderful. It wouldn't change my mind about him as a whole, but I would cheer. And give him credit. I hope Dems work with him on this and don't try to manipulate him into going back on his promise in order to make him look bad. I think the fact that he made the announcement surrounded by Republicans is promising. Earlier in his term there was a moment where he had dinner with some Dems and it looked like he was going to make a deal with them, and then he backed off and absolutely refused. I presume there may have been in this some mix of Mitch McConnell and other Republican lions telling him to not do that sort of thing, and a desire on his own part to stick a finger in the eye of liberal media outlets who were saying things like, "he's not so bad after all!"

On localities funding themselves with criminal fines: in the case of Ferguson, at least, this was less a matter of the locality being too small or poor to afford things, and more a matter of keeping taxes low on "respectable" citizens.

Shadow said...

I'm waiting for Trump to change his mind after Steven Miller talks to him. Steven Miller is worse, luckily he has no direct line of authority. It's only what he can convince his boss to do, which turns out to be a lot.