Framework For Transforming the U.S. Criminal Justice System

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The U.S. incarcerates more individuals than any other nation, accounting for nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The new report, Ending This Place of Torment: A Framework for Transforming the Criminal Justice Continuum, authored by a Senior Fellow, Dr. Douglas E. Wood, takes a comprehensive approach to reforming the entire “criminal justice continuum,” with emphasis on how each segment has a direct causal effect on others.

At the front end is a focus on preventing and decreasing justice involvement, at the middle is the potential of education to transform the prison experience, and finally at the back comes practices that support the 500,000 citizens who reenter their communities each year. Currently, two-thirds of those released will be re-arrested within three years.

“This work builds upon creative, evidence-based programs, practices and policies on criminal justice transformation that the Aspen FCS seeks to uplift and highlight across a continuum of life experiences for justice involved individuals,” said Wood. “Applying these innovative approaches in a seamless, aligned, comprehensive way in neighborhoods where there are high concentrations of incarceration will go a long way to reduce mass incarceration and punitive excess as we know it in America.”

Practices advocated in the report are identified at the macro (federal), meso (state), and micro (community) level. Examples of key recommendations include:

  • The elimination of mandatory minimums at the federal and state level, and the elimination of cash bail for non-violent offences.
  • The decriminalization of drug possession, in favor of health-based rehabilitation drug programs.
  • Eliminating exclusionary disciplinary policies in schools that result in expelling students, and youth detention centers eliminated by minimizing out-of-home placements.
  • Alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs, prioritized in communities where there are spatial concentrations of incarceration, and indigent defense strengthened, particularly for undocumented migrants.
  • Restoring Pell Grants for incarcerated students and lifted restrictions on federal student aid eligibility for formally incarcerated individuals.
  • Banning solitary confinement across all prisons and jails.
  • A sustained commitment to higher education in prisons, with top corrections officers and administrators responsible for initiating a culture change, and parole conditions adjusted to allow for returning students’ needs.
  • A “returning citizens” tax credit at the federal and state level for families who house and support returning relatives.
  • Decreased intensity of community supervision for returning citizens, with more transitional support offered via employment, housing, healthcare, and continuing education.

The report references regional community and state programs across the country which have implemented a number of the above recommendations. These examples provide possible templates with the potential to scale, concentrated in areas in areas with high rates of incarceration. The report’s conclusion stresses that the continuum must be addressed in its entirety in order to make progress, with community level approaches requiring state and federal policy support.

Read the Executive Summary here.

Read the report here.