Justice Reform Panel Discusses How We Got Here

On Thursday, the Coalition for Public Safety hosted a briefing, “The Need for Criminal Justice Reform: How Did We Get Here?,” with coordination with the congressional House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Raul Labrador (R-ID), and Cedric Richmond (D-LA). This briefing highlighted the major policy decisions that have led to a dramatic increase in the federal prison population and serious problems in federal sentencing policies.

Panelists included Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union, Patrick Purtill of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Bruce Western of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and Michael Jacobson of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance.

The moderator, Lance Lemmonds, posed the question, “How does successful reform look to you in 10 years?” This question underscored the goals set by its bipartisan members as the effort to reform the justice system and continue generativity momentum on both sides of Capitol Hill.

Bruce Western responded, “We need to deal with the problems of mental illness and substance abuse through our public health system, not through the criminal justice system. We need to deal with problems of unemployment and employment policy and not through punishment, that is what success would look like.”

Patrick Purtill of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, explained, “Public safety is the metric by which all criminal justice reform is going to be measured. So for me success would be a continuing drop in crime rates accompanied a drop imprisonment population. By better targeting the serious more violent offenders that we really need to make sure of communities are protected against and better identifying the non-violent offenders and the offenders who just pose a lower risk to the community generally and can be helped through good programming either through version programs or through programs while they are in prison I think to achieve those things, that is what success looks like to me.”

“And I would really like to echo what has been said here, it is not a straight-on federal issue but turning our local jails into de-facto mental health treatment centers, because all other options at the local level disappeared. It is just a very, very, very bad way to go about dealing with folks who really need care and not incarceration. And when you talk to police officers it is almost heartbreaking hearing them talk about picking someone up with a mental illness and taking them to jail for their own safety because it is the only thing they can do, they have no other options. I don’t know if that is square on a federal issue, but it’s a state-level issue that I would love to see real things happen in the next ten years,” he added.

We need to be treating this as public health issue and administering treatment. State and local officials have a huge role to play. This means ensuring that state and local officials are using federal dollars effectively to ensure that offenders are rehabilitated before they re-enter society.

The briefing ended with four main markers to gauge future success at the federal, state or local level: Reduce jail imprisonment populations, cut the cost, the massive cost of incarceration, reduce incarceration, and give the folks who get out of prison a fair opportunity to turn their lives around and not recommit.

With these four points, every activist, politician and individual has the power to make motion towards success.