Legal Experts and Prosecutors Push for Nationwide Criminal-Justice Reforms

In this May 2018 file photo, former Gov. Jerry Brown spoke at the California State Capitol. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

HOUSTON (CN) — While criminal justice reform took a backseat to the pandemic in the 2020 elections, there’s consensus in statehouses across the country major changes are needed in policing and incarceration practices. A panel of experts Friday laid out their reform wish lists for 2021. 

The November elections reflected Americans’ changing views towards criminal justice.

Oregon voters passed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of hard drugs, California’s electorate approved a bill restoring voting rights to felony parolees and referendums legalizing recreational marijuana use passed in South Dakota, Montana, New Jersey and Arizona.

For all those changes and calls to shift some funding from police agencies to mental-health workers, measures that were taken this year by the City Council of Austin, Texas and through the will of voters in Los Angeles County, one fact shows how deep the nation will have to dig to set itself on a different path.

There are still millions of people behind bars in America, more per capita than any country in the world.  

For former California governor and attorney general Jerry Brown, 82, it comes down to second chances.

“That’s the essence and that’s the real battle here: Do we think a human being, a child of God, can be forgiven and can turn themselves around or do we keep them like animals in a cage, not just for years, but for decades and decades, which is the predominant ethos of the United States of America?” Brown said Friday in a virtual forum sponsored by the Council on Criminal Justice.

Brown, a Democrat, was California’s governor from 1975 through 1982 and again from 2011 to 2019. He said between his first and second terms, state legislators passed dozens of tough-on-crime bills and voters passed 22 initiatives making punishments for convictions more punitive, and over those years the state’s prison system grew from 20,000 inmates and 12 prisons to 175,000 inmates and 34 prisons.

“The crime rate didn’t go up that fast,” said Brown, a charter member of the council, which includes Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

The former governor said he believes rules dictating mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes should be struck down so judges have discretion on sentencing, and parole boards too should have more freedom to decide who to release from prison.

With her win in November, Tarra Simmons, a Democrat, became the first former prisoner elected to the state Legislature in Washington state.

She said she went to law school following her release from prison seven years ago, but after she graduated, the Washington State Bar Association refused to let her sit for the bar exam because of her past. She appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which unanimously sided with her and went on to become a civil rights attorney.

“In that opinion the Supreme Court wrote, ‘Your past does not define your future,’” Simmons said on Friday’s forum.

As a freshman lawmaker, Simmons said, she’ll lobby for passage of “clean slate” legislation to make it easier for people to expunge some convictions from their records, as criminal records make it harder for people to get good jobs and housing.

She criticized Washington Governor Jay Inslee for vetoing a bill in April that would have automatically expunged minor offenses from millions of people’s records.

Another glaring issue for her: “In Washington we don’t have parole, so if you are sentenced to 60 years, you are doing 60 years. So that’s a major problem.”

In her first term as Cook County State’s Attorney in Chicago, Kim Foxx pivoted from her predecessor’s tough-on-crime approach. She moved away from pressing charges against people charged with small-time theft and drug possession and pushed for bail reform and got results: Bookings into the Cook County Jail fell by around 20% in 2018. 

She said she won reelection in November thanks to overwhelming support of voters in the city of Chicago. But she said most people who live in the suburbs voted against her with many citing her shift away from prosecuting petty crimes.

Homicides are up 50% this year in Chicago. Foxx said she’s trying to impress upon her critics the need to prioritize resources on pursuing convictions for violent crimes. 

“The rules say we can decide what cases to take…. for years we were doing things that were the easiest, low-level cases,” she said.

There’s also been a spike in murders this year in Houston and in cities across the country.

The Council on Criminal Justice examined 27 cities and found on average “homicide rates between June and August of 2020 increased by 53% over the same period in 2019, and aggravated assaults went up by 14%,” according to a study released Sept. 26.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo attributes the city’s jump in murders this year, 353 compared to 140 in all of 2019, to economic stress caused by the pandemic and people being cooped up at home.

“When you think about some of the horrific scenes we’ve seen this year, some of the murder-suicides. We just had one the other day involving a small child and a woman. And it is truly a perfect storm as it relates to not just gun violence and murders, but also the epidemic of suicides. Suicides are up significantly across the country,” he told Houston’s NPR affiliate on Friday.

Despite its wide-ranging conversation, the Council on Criminal Justice panel did not discuss President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for reforms on this front.

Biden expressed regret on the campaign trail for voting for a crime bill in 1994, as a U.S. senator for Delaware, that critics say led to the mass incarceration of Black people.

Biden has now fallen into step with other criminal justice advocates. He says no one should be incarcerated for drug use alone, they should receive treatment. 

He wants the government to save money by reducing the number of people in federal lockups, and encourage states to do the same with a $20 billion grant program through which states could receive funding to address root causes of criminal behavior, such as illiteracy and child abuse. 

States would be eligible only if they do away with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and allow inmates to earn credits with good behavior towards early release.

He also wants to decriminalize marijuana possession across the country.

Simmons, the incoming Washington state lawmaker, said she’s encouraged by reforms voters approved in November, but as a former prisoner she’s keeping it in perspective. 

“The problem is so massive, and we barely made a dent in it,” she said.

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