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Criminal Justice Reform Advocates See Prime Opportunity in 2020 Election

August 2, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC

The topic of criminal justice is weaving its way through political discussions, even making its way into the Twitter tirade President Trump directed at Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chair of the House Oversight Committee who recently voted to subpoena personal emails and texts of top White House aides.

“Elijah Cummings has had his chance to address it (crime & conditions in Baltimore),” Trump tweeted, citing Pete Hegseth, a Fox and Friends co-host, as part of an invective that many decried as racist.

The tweet hints at what some expect to be a showcase in Trump’s presidential platform, the passage of a federal reform called the First Step Act, hailed by the administration as a legislative victory that, in part, rolls back harsh drug war sentencing from the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, the federal act is just one of many legislative pieces aimed at reducing the prison population. For more than a decade, policy at local and state levels has been shifting as crime rates have decreased, finding common ground between conservatives and liberals who are eager to cut costs and reduce racial sentencing disparity. Sensing a ripe moment, criminal justice reformers are ramping up their efforts at state and federal levels.

“What happens in Washington and the federal system does send powerful signals about the direction we are headed in and the sense of urgency about the challenges and the solutions,” said Adam Gelb, whose research and advocacy organization, the Council on Criminal Justice, was announced last week. The organization boasts representatives from diverse ideologies, including Koch Industries and Black Lives Matter.

To understand where the arc of justice reform is headed, it helps to look at some data.

The most optimistic numbers showed that in 2017 there were at least 10% fewer inmates at federal, state, and local facilities compared with 2007, according to the latest numbers available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the yearly drops haven’t been as dramatic. Federal prisoners decreased by 3% in 2017 from 2016, while state inmates decreased by 1%. The number of inmates in local jails didn’t change.

“There have been declines in the state prison population,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice research and reform group. “But they’ve been modest and they don’t meet scale of growth that has dominated the system for 40 to 50 years.”

The statistics hide the dramatic increase in admissions to rural and small city jails amid sizable decreases in certain states and cities, particularly in large urban areas, according to a report by the New York City-based advocacy group the Vera Institute of Justice.

And the drop doesn’t reveal that, since 2009, female inmates have been one of the fastest growing populations.

“Just as the prison and jails that warehouse women were designed for men, so too, are the policies designed to reduce the carceral population,” said Stephanie Bazell, director of policy and advocacy at College & Community Fellowship, a group that advocates for female inmates and supports legislation, including an act in Congress, that would restore federal Pell grants to help inmates receive higher education. “If we are truly to make longstanding reforms to our broken criminal justice system we must examine why and how women are being incarcerated at such high rates and what lawmakers can do to redress this problem.”

And while the statistics say the black male inmate population is largely declining, the imprisonment rate is still six times that of sentenced white males and more than twice that of Hispanic males, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In 2017, nearly two-thirds (482,000) of jail inmates were unconvicted, awaiting court action on a charge or too poor to post bail.

To address these numbers, reform has targeted bail and drug sentencing for nonviolent offenders. States like Georgia have drawn praise for expanding programs for substance abuse offenders and people with mental illness, while altering some sentencing guidelines. The state’s admission of black inmates reached historic lows.

Texas created addiction and mental health programs and reduced the use of incarceration for low-level and nonviolent parole and probation violations; it closed eight prisons. Other states followed suit, adopting various methods to reduce the prison population and associated costs.

New York in April passed state-wide reforms that would eliminate cash bail for all except violent crimes. 

The state moves encouraged federal policy.

The First Step Act reduces crack sentences for anyone convicted before 2010, increases the ability for judges to avoid automatic minimum sentencing for people with some criminal backgrounds and it reduced the amount of time for some automatic sentences, including lifting the federal “three strikes” rule, that used to trigger a life sentence for anyone with three or more violent felonies or drug trafficking, but now would receive 25 years.

“Policy makers in Washington recognized that it was possible to reduce crime and incarceration at the same time…and they also started to see that championing criminal justice reform was not only safe to run on but would also be helpful at the ballot box,” said Gelb.

Anticipating that statewide reforms will continue and that Trump and Democratic candidates will push their own criminal justice platforms, advocates are setting their policy targets.

The Council on Criminal Justice set up a task force, chaired by former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal who launched that state’s reforms, to define the group’s federal priorities by fall. The group expects to further target federal sentencing; look at how former inmates are restricted upon release in areas that include housing and Pell grants; and examine ways to assist states and local governments in reducing violence.

Koch Industries’ Mark Holden, who sits on the Council said he expects to work on expungement of records for people who have low-level nonviolent issues and also look to reform conspiracy laws that target people peripherally involved in a crime.

“We will try to push wherever we can,” he said, adding Arizona may be the next battle ground state. The governor signed one of 17 bills aimed at reform. “Our goal, ultimately, is fewer prisons and fewer people in prison. The number of people incarcerated has dropped but not fast enough considering how fast we went the other way.”

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