Mary Kate Winn: Lack of reform would be a criminal injustice

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - 6:41pm

In October 2015, I attended a talk featuring Piper Kerman, author of the memoir “Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which inspired the award-winning Netflix television show. Kerman devoted much of her time to talking about the importance of criminal justice reform, and the auditorium was full of people receptive to her message.

At the time, thanks to the work of advocates like Kerman, there was bipartisan acknowledgment that the criminal justice system was unfair, ineffective and inefficient. It was one of President Obama’s key objectives and one of his few agendas that didn’t receive pushback from Republicans in Congress. As such, it seemed like criminal justice reform was inevitable. In Trump’s America, though, it seems unimaginable.

It’s quite easy to see why the system needs to be reformed. The United States accounts for 4.4 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 22 percent of the world’s prison population. With 716 prisoners per 100,000 people, the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this high rate of incarceration is due to high rates of crime. In fact, the International Crime Victims Survey shows that the United States has similar rates of criminal victimization as Western European countries.

Furthermore, the United States’ staggeringly high rates of incarceration have disproportionately affected young Black men with low levels of education. As of 2008, one in 10 young African-American men with high school diplomas were in jail or prison. For Black male high school drop-outs, the incarceration rate was 37 percent. Given how difficult it is for ex-offenders to gain employment and the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in many states, these high incarceration rates can have lasting negative impacts on the African-American community. Thus, mass incarceration perpetuates cycles of economic and racial inequality.

There are also very high fiscal costs to the criminal justice system. In the fiscal year of 2013 alone, the budget request for the Federal Bureau of Prisons was $6.9 billion and accounted for more than 25 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget.

This is hardly surprising given the United States’ abysmal recidivism rates. One study found that within five years of release, about 76 percent of released prisoners were rearrested. Therefore, it’s hard to ignore that the U.S. criminal justice system has failed to reform the prisoners whom it incarcerates, allowed for unequal and unjust outcomes and, in the process, racked up a huge bill for U.S. taxpayers.

Due to increasing awareness of these concerns, the pendulum of public opinion has swayed toward supporting criminal justice reform. This push for reform was clear in October 2015, when bipartisan legislation was proposed in the Senate to reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences and ban solitary confinement for juveniles, among many other reforms.

Unfortunately, and despite diverse and powerful support, the bill languished in the Senate. Though it was crafted by senators on both sides of party lines, Trump’s law-and-order campaign brought back the “tough-on-crime” rhetoric that altered the conversation and the political dynamics. This change in tone permitted (and likely motivated) several prominent Republicans to vocally oppose the once-popular bill. Ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not allow a vote on the proposal, deeming it too controversial and divisive.

If the failure of Congress to pass a bipartisan bill addressing mass incarceration dealt a blow to the goal of criminal justice reform, Trump’s appointment for attorney general delivered the knockout punch. The new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was one of the Republican senators who opposed the bill and prevented its success. A look at his history on criminal justice paints a complicated picture that leans toward favoring harsh punishment over rehabilitation, which calls into question his commitment to promoting racial equality broadly and criminal justice reform specifically.

During Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D–Calif.) said, “Sen. Sessions has advanced an agenda that will do great harm to African-American citizens and communities.” Additionally, civil rights leader Sen. John Lewis (D–Ga.) said, “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’ calls for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then.”

How valid are those fears, and can we really assume that criminal justice reform will be prevented at a national level for the next four to eight years? That’s a hard question to answer at this point in the administration, but a look at the new White House website might be the best indication we have right now. The website does not show criminal justice reform as one of the top issues but does cite “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community” as a pressing concern.

Though this is surely a noble goal, it is simply not a sufficient response to the problems plaguing the criminal justice system. In fact, unquestioning and unconditional support of law enforcement can be dangerous when police are abusing their power. Federal investigations have been essential in exposing the systemic violation of the law and racial discrimination by police departments, such as in Ferguson and Chicago.

Under the heading of “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community,” the White House website states, “Our country needs more law enforcement, more community engagement, and more effective policing.” If correctly implemented, these changes could certainly help improve our criminal justice system. But they won’t mean anything in the absence of comprehensive reform. This means that there must be substantial changes to sentencing laws and reentry programming. It also means that police and prisons need to continue to be held accountable for discrimination and unjustified use of force.

These goals may seem impossible, or at least impractical, in the new administration, but it’s important to remember that change does not need to happen at a federal level to make a difference. State legislation has, can and will make a huge difference in the battle for criminal justice reform. In Michigan, for example, a 19-bill package was re-introduced that would reform the state’s parole and probation systems.

It’s time for us to push our state legislators to pick up where our national legislators left off. Our administration may have changed since last October when I went to see Piper Kerman talk and criminal justice reform was all but certain. However, we as a nation have not changed, and we can work to enact change ourselves.

Mary Kate Winn can be reached at winnm@umich.edu.