August 18, 2015

For better justice, three steps

On the heels of the tragic events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and too many other communities, Americans are engaged in a renewed debate about our nation’s criminal justice system. Have decades of “tough on crime” policies gone too far? Is it time to stop locking up minor offenders for extended periods of time? How can we improve trust between the police and poor, often minority, communities?

These are questions worth asking. And there are clear policy responses to some of them. For instance, I support the effort to reform sentencing laws by reducing “mandatory minimums” that can land nonviolent offenders in prison for upwards of a decade or more. And things like providing body cameras to police officers can strengthen trust and accountability and are worth exploring.

But there are other, equally important questions worth asking, with correlating bipartisan solutions brewing in Congress. Here are a few that I believe must be included in this national debate:

What can we do to help prisoners return to society upon release and end the cycle of recidivism?

A study released last year concluded that two-thirds of prisoners in 30 states surveyed were arrested again within three years of being released. The federal prison population has grown from just 24,000 in 1980 to well over 200,000 today, so we can’t afford to overlook the role that this cycle of recidivism has played.

Here’s the good news: states as diverse as Rhode Island and Texas have implemented reforms that have proven to help prisoners re-acclimate to society while also making communities safer. In Rhode Island, for example, we offered inmates the opportunity to earn earlier release from prison in exchange for completing programs proven to reduce the risk that they’ll commit future crimes, such as drug treatment programs and vocational training. Those changes were followed by a 9 percent reduction in our state prison population and a 7 percent decline in our crime rate. And, according to a recent report by the Council of State Governments, reforms of this nature have been shown to reduce racial disparities in prison populations in several states.

I want to take these proven state-level reforms and apply them to the federal prison system.

Are outdated juvenile justice policies dooming too many young kids to a lifetime in and out of prison?

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the federal law that sets guidelines for handling juveniles who commit crimes, hasn’t been updated since 2002. In the years since, we’ve learned a lot more about how certain policies can help or hinder the development of young children, and how our current system is contributing to the tragic “school-to-prison-pipeline” that pushes far too many kids out of classrooms and into prison cells.

I believe that our kids deserve better, and we’re working to update the JJDPA to protect those kids who do enter the juvenile justice system by ensuring that they are not held with or near adults (an experience that can be both traumatizing and dangerous); ending policies that throw kids in prison for “status offenses” that would never land an adult in jail (i.e. skipping school or drinking underage); enabling kids to continue their education while in custody so they don’t fall behind their classmates; and more.

Should we treat drug addiction as a crime or a disease?

According to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 65 percent of inmates in our prisons and jails meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction. While many of these inmates rightly deserve to be behind bars, some could be better served by simply getting help to treat their addiction.

More American citizens and policymakers are recognizing addiction for what it is: not a sin or a stigma, but an illness. States and municipalities across the country are increasingly diverting individuals arrested for drug offenses into specialized drug courts that can help them gain access to treatment rather than sending them to prison.

Helping our friends and family members get clean and stay clean, and treating addiction as a disease rather than a crime, are important steps toward a fairer criminal justice system.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse