What Is Criminal Justice Reform?

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Laquan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddy Gray. Philando Castile. Jordan Edwards. Breonna Taylor. These are some of the names that have been in the headlines not because of how they lived but because of how they died.

In the last few years, criminal justice reform has been woven into the fabric of a national conversation. Reports of police brutality, racial profiling, prosecutorial misconduct, and sentencing discrepancies seem like common occurrences. Grassroots advocates to celebrities highlight these inequities and argue that many laws disproportionately affect people of color and lower socioeconomic status.

As defenders of clients in criminal defense and immigration cases, we at Hubbs Law Firm believe strongly in everyone’s right to skilled defense. We genuinely care about each client, striving to secure for them a future full of possibilities. As former prosecutors, we also have the unusual vantage point of seeing criminal justice from both sides.

The question of whether our criminal justice system needs an overhaul is a complicated one. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. This blog is in no way an attempt to say definitively what needs to be done but is part of the bigger conversation. If more people, from inside and outside the system, engage in thoughtful discussion, maybe some answers will come to light.

Criminal Justice vs. Prison Reform

Both reforms are entwined but not the same. Criminal justice reform is an umbrella term that covers all aspects of the criminal justice process, from how law enforcement polices our communities to how prisons house and rehabilitate the convicted. Prison reform focuses only on prison, but there are many aspects to that as well.

Criminal justice reform addresses structural issues in criminal justice systems such as racial profiling, police brutality, overcriminalization, mass incarceration, and recidivism. Criminal justice reform can take place at any point where the criminal justice system intervenes in citizens’ lives, including lawmaking, policing, and sentencing.

Prison reform is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons, improve the effectiveness of a penal system, or implement alternatives to incarceration. It also focuses on ensuring the reinstatement of those whose lives are impacted by crimes.

Food for Thought

To see how criminal justice impacts our country, let’s look at some numbers to help bring to life what could be an intangible system to some.

Some statistics helpful to the criminal justice reform conversation include:

  • The U.S. is 5% of the world population yet is 25% of the incarcerated population.
  • The U.S. spent $87 billion on jails and prisons in 2015.
  • The prison population is 11 times higher than it was 50 years ago, greatly outpacing the increase in our overall population.
  • The U.S. is the only country in the world where kids as young as 13 have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
  • Spending on police has tripled over the last 40 years.
  • A black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person despite approximately equal rates of use.
  • Recidivism rates are high. A May 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report on state prisoner recidivism followed a sample of the 412,731 prisoners released by 30 states in 2005. About 68% were arrested again within three years, 79% within six years and 83% in nine years.
  • Improper argument at trial and withheld evidence of innocence were the forms of misconduct alleged most commonly by wrongfully convicted defendants.
  • 440 civilians have been killed by police in the first six months of 2021 with a total of 1,021 killed in 2020.

A Local Look

In Florida, we have almost 150,000 people in prison or jail. For every 100,000 people in the Sunshine State, 444 are incarcerated in prison and 330 in jail. That’s 21% higher than the national average. About 14% of our prison population is serving a life sentence and 178 juveniles are serving life without parole. Florida’s population has tripled in the last 40 years yet the prison population grew 1000%. Florida spends $2.3 billion annually on corrections, an increase of $100 million since 2014.

Organizations Focusing on Reform

There are numerous organizations whose mission is to change aspects of the criminal justice system, whether it is front-end policies in policing or back-end policies in incarceration.

The following is a list of some of the organizations involved in criminal justice reform:

Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. The organization is dedicated to comprehensive reform that ends overreliance on incarceration and eliminates racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system

Equal Justice Initiative. The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. The Criminal Law Reform Project focuses its work on the “front end” of the criminal legal system—from policing to sentencing—seeking to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice, and stand in the way of a fair and equal society.

Brennan Center for Justice. The center’s Justice project works to end mass incarceration and other criminal justice policies that target communities of color, and to create a rational and effective justice system.

Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC is working to reform the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems, so they operate fairly and equitably; to ensure the dignity and humanity of those interacting with these systems; and to reduce the population of jailed, detained, and incarcerated juveniles and adults in the United States.

The Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. UNODC's work in criminal justice reform covers: police reform, prosecution service, judiciary (the courts), access to legal defense and legal aid, prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment, and Restorative justice.

Council on Criminal Justice. The Council on Criminal Justice works to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all.

Some Good News

In fact, over the last decade, 34 states have reduced both imprisonment and crime rates, proving that less incarceration does not necessarily lead to unsafe communities. In Florida, our state legislature passed a bill that allowed for the expungement of criminal records of juveniles who took part in behavioral programs. Our new Gail’s Law established a statewide database for tracking rape kits. In 2020, convicted felons who had completed their sentences (and had paid all court fees, fines, or restitution) were allowed to vote.

At the federal, state, and local levels, policy changes have begun to make small inroads, with criminal justice reform evolving toward evidence-based, commonsense approaches to public safety.

Moving Forward

The statistics and the work of reform organizations highlight how criminal justice reform isn’t just about those arrested or serving sentences. The financial, social, and health costs affect us all.

This conversation will undoubtedly continue for many years to come, but we hope the good news begins to outweigh the bad.

At Hubbs Law Firm, we will continue to aggressively defend our clients and treat them with the dignity they deserve.

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