The Challenge of Criminal Justice Reform
December 17, 2018 | Perspectives | Criminal Justice

As the results of the 2018 midterm elections reminded us, the American public has clearly come to recognize the need for criminal justice reform. In a variety of ways, large and small, across regional and party lines, voters signaled skepticism about the punitive policies of the last 40 years and an openness to new approaches.

A state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to former felons passed with overwhelming support in Florida. In Washington, voters removed barriers to prosecution of police accused of killing civilians. Several more states joined the growing number that have decriminalized marijuana use, scaling back the war on drugs. And in many local races, in Boston, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, a diverse new generation of reform-minded prosecutors and sheriffs received a mandate to seek better, fairer, and more balanced approaches to crime and disorder.

MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge is a large-scale effort to help local communities translate this widespread desire for reform into action. We launched the Challenge more than three years ago, targeting America’s excessive reliance on jail incarceration, a key component and driver of mass incarceration, by supporting a diverse network of communities as they seek to create fairer, more effective local justice systems. A total of 52 jurisdictions have now formally joined the Challenge and are actively engaged in this work. They are collaborating across systems to understand what drives local jail usage, finding ways to deflect or divert people from unnecessary criminal justice involvement, setting up programs that connect people with sources of treatment and support, looking for efficiencies that cut processing times and shorten jail stays, and otherwise rethinking their systems with the goal of reducing incarceration and increasing fairness while maintaining public safety.

Many of our site teams have had to return to the drawing board, revising their analyses and devising new plans in response to what they have learned.

We are encouraged by the diversity of the network’s membership, by the commitment and determination its elected leaders show, and, above all, by the enthusiasm in the air at our network convenings. Judges, prosecutors, defenders, police, probation and pretrial officers, data analysts, community advocates, behavioral health specialists, and other stakeholders are devoting themselves to the day-to-day task of reform across the country. In many instances, we have also been gratified by the results achieved by our partners. Jail populations have fallen significantly in some network sites, and these reductions appear to be linked to initiative-supported changes in local policy and practice.

But elsewhere, jail numbers have been slow to decline or have even risen. Reforms have been harder to implement than local leaders contemplated or otherwise not yielded expected returns. Three years into our initiative, we continue to see how hard the work of local criminal justice system reform really is. Problems that are decades in the making resist easy fixes. In many of our jurisdictions, the “low-hanging fruit” has already been picked—leaving only the tougher, more serious problems to be tackled. Changes that enjoy broad stakeholder support, such as diversion for first-time offenders, often turn out to have less jail reduction impact than expected; only deeper, more challenging reforms, like fundamentally overhauling the way criminal cases are processed through court systems, will move the numbers. Many of our site teams have had to return to the drawing board, revising their analyses and devising new plans in response to what they have learned.

Not surprisingly, our local partners have also struggled in their efforts to confront and resolve the tragic history of racism reflected in America’s criminal justice system. For the most part, progress in understanding and addressing current racial and ethnic disparities in jail usage has been slow and uneven across the Network. And one potential path to a solution—the engagement of impacted communities and the incorporation of diverse community perspectives in criminal justice problem solving and decision making—has proved challenging to implement. We recently made supplemental awards to enable a number of our sites to step up their community engagement efforts, but the results of these new grants have yet to be seen. In any case, it will take much more than money to build local justice systems that are truly inclusive, transparent, and fair.

Nevertheless, our team is optimistic, and the reasons can be found across the Safety and Justice Challenge network: in the striking instances of sustained commitment shown by justice leaders and the rank and file, even in the face of adversity and disappointment. They can be found in the reform collaborations that have grown broader and stronger with time. And they are found in the practice innovations and creative fixes springing up in response to a variety of specific local challenges, generating interest and excitement across peer networks, and beginning to spread from site to site.

We entered this field convinced that the misuse and overuse of jails is “a national problem that demands local solutions”—that the only way forward is to support development of a range of approaches to safely limiting jail usage, matching the range and diversity of local justice systems. We believe we are seeing what that process looks like. 

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