During a three-day conference in New York City, a panel presented what it called “major issues,” and discussed what could be done to reduce bias at the charging, pretrial detention, jury selection, and at the sentencing stage of criminal proceedings.
Participants at the conference emphasized the need to look at the entire criminal justice process: “Rather than belabor what has gone wrong or has not worked, participants shared innovative disparity-reduction practices from around the country, as well as new ideas for reforming policies that produce mass incarceration.”
Sponsors of the conference identified the magnitude and scope of the U. S. criminal justice system, citing statistics such as “2.2 million people incarcerated as of 2012, at a cost of $70 billion.” The report found nearly one in four adults has criminal records in the U.S., or 65 million people. Many of the offenses are non-violent.
New York State Supreme Court judge Marcy Friedman noted a 2007 study showing that 69 percent of New York City’s arrests were for misdemeanors or lesser violations. “Never before have so many been arrested for so little,” said Judge Friedman.
“Recognizing that most crime results from a lack of opportunity, the first priority was a community-wide survey, conducted door to door, to understand what people saw as the biggest issues in the neighborhood,” finds a report on the conference by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
Various reforms were presented to combat “racial disproportionality at every stage of criminal proceedings,” including reducing reliance on long jail sentences in an effort to reduce crime.
- Further reforms include:
- repealing mandatory minimums
- zero-tolerance policies in schools
- reforming bail policies
- outlawing racial profiling by police
- decriminalize non-violent drug offenses
- end the practice of adjudicating juveniles in adult courts
- repeal post-conviction impediments that hinder re-entry
Experts at the conference said “their practice is blind to race,” and prosecutors said in many cases they “do not know the race of the defendant until arraignment.”
According to the report, a by-product of even a minor conviction will cause individuals to suffer one, if not more, “collateral consequences” like loss of housing, jobs, the right to vote, student loans, or deportation.
Providing services to prevent crime, such as lifting barriers to employment and housing, along with creating policies for sentencing reforms that promote crime prevention, and reducing some misdemeanors to infractions were also among the recommendations.
“Job developers, educators and social workers are all part of the equation, not just lawyers and judges,” said James Brodick, a project director with the Center for Court Innovation.
The report cites the Fair Sentencing Act signed by President Obama in 2010, which reduces the “disparity between crack and powder cocaine,” and the Second Chance Act signed in 2008 to help individuals “returning to communities from prisons and jails.”
“America is the land of second chances, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life,” said former president George W. Bush in a Journal of Prisoners on Prisons publication.
At the end of the conference, participants advocated moving forward in two areas to reduce racial disparity in the criminal justice system. They said there needs to be “structural reform at points of entry and sentencing,” and “fair administration of justice reforms to minimize the impact of existing racial and economic disparities.”
“Without greater efforts to address harsh policing and sentencing policies, initiatives aimed at the fair administration of justice in courts will be insufficient to eliminate the racial disproportionality that currently defines the U.S. criminal justice system,” the report concluded.