Forging a Path Toward True Criminal Justice Reform
In my 26 years as president and chief executive officer of The Fortune Society, I have witnessed incarceration rates swell even as crime rates plummeted. Our nation has plowed full steam ahead adopting harsh policies that have made us the largest jailer in the world. Our criminal justice system has not made our communities safer; rather, it has fractured families alienated communities and further marginalized low-income minorities.
The damage done to communities of color is sobering. But it is encouraging to know that policymakers, researchers and advocates across the political spectrum are now coalescing around true criminal justice reform with a specific goal of reducing reliance on incarcerationwhile increasing public safety, promoting community enrichment and reducing the damaging effects of a criminal conviction.
Progress has been made over the past few years. New York state has closed prisons and reduced the prison population. Gov. Andrew Cuomo adopted the recommendations of the Council on Community Reentry that he established in 2014, helping to level the playing field for the formerly incarcerated in the areas of housing, employment and healthcare.
The city has reduced its jail population and agreed to significantly scale back its use of solitary confinement. Also, in a major step forward to help people with criminal records find employment, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council passed the Fair Chance Act, which gives formerly incarcer- ated people a decent chance – at the very least – of landing a job interview.
Despite this progress, there is much work to be done. In 2016, our leaders in City Hall and the state Capitol can take further steps to reduce the number of incarcerated New Yorkers while increasing services to those who are behind bars.
Real sentencing reform must bal- ance public safety while reducing reliance on incarceration. To that end, The Fortune Society recommends:
* Increasing alternative-to-incarceration programs that have a proven track record of success
* Eliminating mandatory minimums
* Decreasing the maximum sentence for Class A misdemeanors by one day, to 364 days, thus allowing judicial discretion on mandatory detention and deportation in immigration cases
* Expanding viable alternatives to incarceration to include those with violent convictions
Steps must also be taken to ensure certain safety nets are in place once individuals regain their freedom. We must:
* Increase in-prison therapeutic programming as well as vocational and educational programming, including post-secondary education
* Ensure people released from prison have access to healthcare by activating Medicaid before release
* Provide people leaving jail or prison with non-stigmatizing government-issued identification like non-driver ID cards
Our system of parole must work to ensure parolees get the assistance and guidance they need to reenter their communities and lead positive, productive lives as they face tough transitions. To that end, we must:
* Reduce technical parole violations
* Implement “presumptive parole” so that individuals who have reached parole eligibility and are assessed as “low risk” are automatically granted parole
* When an individual deemed low-risk by the COMPAS probation risk and needs assessment system is denied parole, there must be written justification and higher-level review
Supporting individuals’ successful reentry means we must do better with eliminating discrimination against the formerly incarcerated. We must:
* Apply “Ban the Box” (an ordinance restricting when potential employers can enquire about a job applicant's criminal history during the application process) to state jobs and human services agencies that contract with parole
* Address discrimination that prevents people with criminal justice histories from attending SUNY
* Create viable capital and operating funding streams for transitional and supportive housing
* Increase the public assistance shelter allowance from $215 a month
* Significantly scale back use of “Permanent Exclusions” in NYCHA public housing
* Increase funding for mental health, substance abuse and other behavioral health services
Lastly, we must also expand routine clemency consideration to currently incarcerated individuals convicted of violent crimes when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation, a low-risk COMPAS score or incapacitation due to illness or advanced age. The superintendents of the state’s 54 correctional facilities should make at least one recommendation for clemency each month.
There is one final big caveat: We must not allow “headline panic” to dictate bad public policy. If just one bad apple slips through the system, critics unfairly blame our elected officials. And sadly, the reaction is often to shut the doors on programs that really work while doing more of what we know does not work.
If our achievements over the past few years serve as a benchmark, there is room for optimism that by working together we can further our progress on meaningful criminal justice reform in 2016 and beyond. Scaling back decades of harmful criminal justice policies is a complex process. By reevaluating our sentencing structure, reforming parole policies, utilizing programs more effectively, increasing opportunities for release, reducing discrimination and providing necessary resources post-release, we can make a meaningful dent in the number of incarcerated New Yorkers, ease their transition home and improve public safety all at the same time.