Public Policy and Politics
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11. Reconsider the Death Penalty
12. End the excessive punishment of children
1. Pass The Next Step Act
Sponsored by Senator Cory Booker, the Next Step Act would make reforms to reduce the prison population and provide systematic support for re-entry for people released from prison. The bill would:
Reduce the disparity between crack/powder cocaine sentences(18:1 to 1:1)
Reduce harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses
Reinstate the right to vote in federal elections for formerly the incarcerated
Create a federal pathway to sealing the records of nonviolent drug offenses for adults and automatically sealing juvenile records
Remove the lifetime ban on federal TANF and SNAP benefits for former nonviolent drug offenders
Remove barriers that prevent people with convictions from receiving an occupational license for jobs, such as hairdressers and taxi drivers
Improve the ability of those behind bars to stay in touch with loved ones, by banning the practice of charging exorbitant rates for phone calls (upwards of $400-$500 per month) and ensuring authorities take into consideration where someone's kids are located when placing them in a federal facility, a circumstance that acutely impacts women in prison
Incentivize states through federal grants to decrease their prison populations
Ensure that anyone released from federal prison receives meaningful assistance in obtaining a photo-ID, birth certificate, social security card, or work authorization documents.
2. Ending Imprisonment for Lower-Level Crimes and Reducing Overly Long Sentences: The War on Drugs
America locks up 2.3 million people per year, devastating communities and using up vital resources. 51% of federal inmates are the direct result of drug convictions. If federal and state governments ended imprisonment for lower-level nonviolent crimes and reduced overly long sentences, we could safely cut the nation’s prison population by 40 percent. We use prisons as warehouses for people who need help, and because prisons isolate people from their support networks and provide insufficient programming and training, they can be counterproductive in rehabilitation and in reducing recidivism. 1/4 of prisoners were incarcerated for a lower-level crime, and alternatives to prison like treatment, community service, or probation might reduce recidivism and provide people with a chance to be healthy. The federal government can implement these two steps, setting the stage for states to do the same. The war on drugs has also failed, with drug usage skyrocketing in the US after president after president declared fighting drugs a priority. The disproportionate incarceration of people of color in America has not solved the drug crisis because it doesn't reduce supply or demand; rather, it exacerbates pre-existing racial inequality, takes up resources that could be directed toward rehabilitation and mental health support among other public services, and perpetuates cyclical poverty and disenfranchisement.
3. Incentivize States to Reduce Populations through “Reverse” Crime Bill
Congress can use federal funds to encourage states to reduce their prison populations. Federal policymakers helped contribute to the growth of mass incarceration, using funding to encourage states to increase arrests, prosecution, and imprisonment. The 1994 Crime Bill incentivized states to lengthen prison sentences and build prisons. Though that grant expired, Washington still allocates billions of dollars to state and local justice systems,often cutting against rather than supporting reform efforts. To unwind these incentives, Congress can pass a “reverse” of the 1994 Crime Bill — an act to reverse mass incarceration — which would provide funding to states that successfully reduce imprisonment and crime together.
4. Abolish Money Bail
Money bail blatantly favors the rich, allowing people who are awaiting a hearing to return home to their communities if they are wealthy enough to pay the price, but forcing poor people, even those who are being charged with non-violent crimes and who are not a risk to the community, to suffer in prison under dangerous conditions for up to several years due to the inefficiencies of the legal process. Such was the case for Kalief Browder, a child who was forced to live in prison for three years while he awaited trial, was found innocent, and committed suicide shortly after being release. Money bail is a practice that punishes poverty and turns what should be a public safety decision into a decision based on wealth.
5. End the Over-Incarceration of Women
Over the past few decades, the number of incarcerated women has grown at almost twice the rate of incarcerated men. Most are mothers, and about two-thirds are women of color. Many women who are pregnant in prison face abuse by other prisoners and guards.The First Step Act banned the shackling of pregnant women and ensured that women have access to menstrual hygiene products in prison However, in many states, incarcerated pregnant women can still be restrained or placed in solitary confinement without access to adequate medical and nutritional care.
6. Strengthen Resources for Public Defenders and Hold Prosecutors Accountable
Traditionally, prosecutors have been rewarded for securing more convictions and longer sentences. Prosecutors should shift success measures to more modern metrics, such as reducing unnecessary imprisonment, reducing racial disparities, and lowering recidivism rates — moving towards a culture of reducing mass incarceration. Lawmakers can use budgetary incentives to reward prosecutors’ offices that reduce incarceration and recidivism. We can also hold prosecutors accountable through collecting data on charging decisions and outcomes or ensuring that defense attorneys have greater access to a prosecutor’s case file. However, prosecutors are only half of the adversarial equation. We also need to equip public defenders with the resources they need to do their jobs well. In 1963, the Supreme Court famously held in Gideon v. Wainwright that state courts are required to provide counsel to criminal defendants unable to pay for an attorney. But a truly fair process requires that defendants have lawyers who have the resources to challenge the prosecution. Only 21% of state public defender offices are able to handle their caseloads with attorneys working at recommended levels. In Louisiana, public defenders have almost five times the recommended workload, which led one federal judge to declare that “the state was failing miserably at upholding its obligations under Gideon.” Time and resource constraints discourage public defenders from taking cases to trial. The vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains — by some estimates, as much as 94 percent at the state level and 97 percent at the federal level. Finally, between housing, child care, and student loan debt, young public defenders often have a hard time covering the cost of living and get pulled to more lucrative jobs. Public defenders often wonder whether their jobs are compatible with reaching financial stability and starting a family. It is not enough just to have a lawyer; defendants in criminal cases need lawyers who have enough time, money, and resources to unearth all of the facts and exculpatory evidence in their cases. They need lawyers who can stand up in court, fully prepared to challenge the prosecution.
7. Stop the Over Policing of Communities of Color
We rely on the criminal justice system to address social and public health problems. Every day, poor people, homeless people, and mentally ill people are treated as threats, instead of people deserving of care and support, and are incarcerated. Police officers are often first responders to social crises, which many officers say they never envisioned being part of their job. We need to ensure people in crisis receive care from medical professionals and community-based interventions. The over-policing of some communities contributes to our country’s outsized and racially disparate arrested and incarcerated population. We should embrace procedural justice as a guiding principle that informs policies, practices, and training and develop departmental policies and training, while including community members in the delivery of community policing, bias-free, and use of force training. Police departments must develop policies, practices, and priorities that support fairness, equity, procedural justice, legitimacy, transparency, and accountability.
8. End the Over Incarceration of People with Mental Illness
If someone is suffering from drug addiction and charged with possession for the first time, they should go to a treatment program for counseling a People suffering from mental health issues would be better served by mental health courts, where they can access healthcare providers or probation social services. Treatment programs and mental health courts instead of prisons can reduce rearrests by half and save taxpayers thousands of dollars. If the states adopt this policy too, we could safely reduce the national prison population by nearly 25 percent. Drug courts — which divert nonviolent, substance-abusing offenders from prison into supervised treatment — offer an opportunity to ensure that those struggling with addiction get the help they need while preserving public safety. Drug courts save money, reduce recidivism, and give low-level, nonviolent drug offenders a second chance at becoming productive members of society. We need to get more people with mental illness — many of whom are veterans, people of color, and people from other marginalized groups. According to a study by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 75% of drug court graduates had not been arrested again, compared with 30 percent of those released from prison. The most comprehensive study on drug courts concluded that they save an average of $6,000 per person.
Mental Health Awareness
To help close the revolving door of our criminal justice system, we also need to curb substance abuse on the front end. We need expanded access to treatment programs and support evidence-based prevention, enforcement, treatment, and recovery programs.
9. Pass the Second Look Act
U.S. Senator Cory Booker and U.S. House Representative Karen Bass have introduced bicameral legislation to create a sentence review procedure for people serving sentences longer than ten years in federal prison. Inspired by the cases of Matthew Charles and William Underwood, the Second Look Act of 2019 would appoint federal judges to consider petitions for sentence reduction after a person has served at least 10 years. The court must find that the person is not a danger to the safety of any person or the community; they demonstrate readiness for reentry; and the interests of justice warrant a sentence modification. A second look at these long sentences is essential to account for the personal changes that people make over time, and to preserve public resources for effective crime prevention.
10. Abolish For-Profit Prisons
Imprisonment rates in the United States have increased by a dramatic 700 percent since 1970, causing overcrowded prisons across the nation. Rather than reduce overcrowding, federal and state governments decided to contract with private prisons. The two largest companies in the for-profit prison industry, CoreCivic and GEO Group, own most of the share of private prisons in America. During fiscal year 2017, the vast majority of immigrant detainees were held in private facilities. Private prisons result in corporations profiting off of the forced labor of prisoners, who are mostly people of color. The problem here is that corporations have a conflict of interest. They perpetuate the imprisonment of people because this allows them to make larger profits through cheap or unpaid labor. This incentive conflicts with the goal of ultimately rehabilitating and educating prisoners. This system needs to be abolished in order to ensure that prisoners are in environments that are fostering good for society and not just money for powerful corporations.
11. Reconsider the Death Penalty
Bryan Stevenson, activist, lawyer, and co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative says, “The death penalty requires a perfect system that we don't have.” For every nine people executed because of the death penalty, one is innocent. targets the most vulnerable people in our society and is driven by erroneous eyewitness identifications, false and coerced confessions, and inadequate legal representation. In death penalty cases, perjury/false accusations and official misconduct are the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Misconduct by police or prosecutors was involved in 79% of the homicide exonerations in 2018. Concealing evidence that casts doubt on the defdnat’s guilt is the most common type of misconduct, which includes police officers threatening witnesses, forensics analysts faking test results, and prosecutors presenting false testimony. Moreover, data shows that 87% of black exonerees who were sentenced to death were victims of official misconduct, in comparison to 67% of white death row exonerees. A person doesn’t have to be innocent to be wrongly sentenced to death. The pressure to obtain a death sentence for police, prosecutors and even judges can cause errors that contribute to wrongful execution. In McCleskey v. Kempshowing, courts considered statistical evidence that Georgia defendants were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white than if the victim was black. The Court accepted the data was accurate, but it refused to reverse the death sentence because it concluded that racial bias in sentencing is “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” Race still influences who is sentenced to death and executed in America today. The data in Georgia has actually gotten worse: people convicted of killing white victims are 17 times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing black victims.
12. End the Excessive Punishment of Children
In hundreds of ways the law recognizes that children are different from adults—they’re more vulnerable, emotional, and impulsive, and they can’t get themselves out of unsafe homes or communities, but they’re also more likely to change as they grow up. But until recently, these legal protections didn’t apply to children accused of committing violent crimes. Children were executed in the U.S. until 2005, and only in the last decade has the Supreme Court limited death-in-prison sentences for children. Kids as young as eight can still be charged as an adult, held in an adult jail, and sentenced to extreme sentences in an adult prison. The U.S. is the only country in the world where kids as young as 13 have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Some children were sentenced for crimes where no one was killed or even injured, and many were convicted even though older teens or adults were primarily responsible for the crime. Seventy percent of those 14 or younger who were sentenced to die in prison were children of color. In 2010, the Court in Graham v. Florida barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses. In 2012, the Court in Miller v. Alabama Struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. Incarcerating children with adults needlessly puts kids at great risk of sexual and physical violence, increased trauma, and suicide. Every state in America has the capacity to house juveniles separate from adults but many refuse to do so. Kids’ low social status compared to adult interrogators, beliefs about the need to obey authority, greater dependence on adults, and vulnerability to intimidation makes them uniquely susceptible to coercive psychological interrogation techniques designed for adults, leading to false confessions and undermining the reliability of the fact-finding process. Thirteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults: Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. Each year, judges transfer dozens of children under 14 to adult court. Prosecutors charge other young kids directly in adult court. More than half of the children under 14 transferred to adult court each year are African American or Latino. The excessive punishment of children harms the nation's most vulnerable and perpetuates cyclical poverty and injustice.
13. Advocate for Fair Chance Hiring Policies
Employment is critical to successful re-entry. Studies show that when job applicants have to check a box on an application indicating they have a criminal record, the chance of getting called back for an interview drops by 50%. Advocate for your state, county, city, and businesses to adopt “fair-chance hiring” policies to help formerly incarcerated people get jobs.
14. Reconsider Felon Disenfranchisement
More than three million American citizens who live, work, and raise families in our communities are barred from voting because of a past criminal conviction. Many of these people are non-violent first-time offenders, and many of these people were wrongfully convicted, sentenced too harshly, or unfairly treated on the basis of race. Learn about felony disenfranchisement in your state and advocate for the restoration of voting rights.
15. Support the Real Act
Formerly incarcerated people are 43% less likely to return to prison if they have access to college courses while they are incarcerated. The bipartisan Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL) Act would reverse the 1994 ban on federal financial aid for incarcerated people. Urge your representatives in Congress to support the REAL Act.