The U.S. Department of Justice has conducted a review of the criminal justice system to identify reforms needed to ensure the uniform application of federal laws for the 21st century. This project identified five goals:
- The devotion of finite resources to the most important law enforcement priorities.
- To promote even-handed law enforcement and reduce unequal impacts of the criminal justice system.
- To ensure fair punishments for low-level, nonviolent convictions.
- Bolster offender re-entry efforts geared to deter crime and reduce recidivism.
- Strengthen protections for vulnerable populations.
All phases of the criminal justice were reviewed in August 2013 — including charging, sentencing, incarceration and re-entry — to examine which practices are most successful at deterring crime and protecting the public. Demographic disparities of fundamental fairness were also reviewed.
The review suggests a need for a significant change in the approach to enforcing the nation’s laws. It found the cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration snares too many Americans and debilitates communities, and many aspects of the criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems.
Although aggressive enforcement of federal laws is necessary, the government cannot prosecute its way to becoming a safer nation, according to the study. Federal efforts must also focus on prevention and re-entry to be effective. The report also acknowledged it is time to rethink the nation’s system of mass incarceration. In 2010 alone, state and federal incarceration budgets cost $80 billion nationwide.
The DOJ wants to shift away from over-reliance on incarceration for low-level offenders and concentrate resources on law enforcement priorities, such as violence prevention and protection of vulnerable populations.
The Justice Department’s initial package of reforms is dubbed the “Smart on Crime” initiative. It is the start of an ongoing effort to update the criminal justice system. The DOJ proposed these principles for getting smart on crime:
Prioritized prosecutions focused on the most serious crimes that implicate clear, substantial federal interests. These interests include protecting citizens from national security threats, violent crime and financial fraud as well as, protecting the most vulnerable members of society.
Reform sentencing to eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overburdened prisons. The rising cost of maintaining prisons imposes an oppressive burden on taxpayers and communities. The Bureau of Prisons comprises one-third of the Justice Department’s budget.
Pursue alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent crimes. Incarceration is not the answer in every case. Alternatives to confinement include substance abuse treatment programs and better supervision as a means to reducing recidivism.
Improve re-entry to curb repeat offenses and re-victimization. Recidivism rates are high. A reduction of even one or two percentage points in the recidivism rate could create long-lasting benefits for the formerly incarcerated and their communities.
“Surge” resources to violence prevention and protecting the most vulnerable populations.
Even though crime rates have fallen, neighborhoods still suffer high levels of homicide, shootings and aggravated assaults. Exploring cost-effective reforms to the prison system will allow law enforcement to redirect scarce resources toward violence prevention.
In addition to these violence prevention efforts, the Department of Justice also remains focused on serving victims of crime. It will empower survivors who need assistance the most.