Our headlines seem filled with stories about crimes throughout the country. If the number of criminal lawyers is any indication it might seem like the overall incidence of crime was on the rise. However, a careful look at the data shows that the overall rate of crime has remained constant in this generation and it is the rate and total population of incarcerated individuals that has increased – mainly due to stricter sentencing guidelines.
If the goal is to scale back incarceration several important areas of the justice system need to be addressed. Here are some examples:
Some state legislatures have examined their probation systems and begun offering probation to third time non-violent offenders. They have also offered the same in the case of first-time, low-level violent offenses such as a simple battery. Other areas have reformed their laws to expand probation eligibility, reclassifying low-level felonies as misdemeanors, streamlining the parole review mechanism, and limiting admissions for technical violations.
Fixing The Race Issue
It is no surprise that there is a wide disparity in the racial representation among prison populations. In some areas legislatures have adopted new procedures called “racial impact statements”. These are studies that show how particular sentencing guidelines may have a disproportionate impact on one race over another, or one segment of society more than another. Some proposed laws require the legislature to show good cause why they enacted any law that disproportionately affects one race more than another. In another case, an oversight board monitors and implements practices to rectify structural race issues in the justice system.
Raising the Age
In many locales, children as young as 16 are prosecuted as adults. Many jurisdictions are now re-thinking these rules, with some passing legislation raising the juvenile jurisdiction age limit to 18 for non-violent crimes.
Many thousands of people convicted of drug offenses are prohibited from receiving public assistance. Some jurisdictions have elected to opt out of these restrictions and begin allowing those convicted of drug offenses to begin to receive the assistance they need, coupled with state provided drug treatment and counseling. Other states have chosen to forgo drug testing as a requirement before a person qualifies for state help.
A Voting Solution
In many instances those convicted of serious crimes are not allowed to vote. However, some jurisdictions have started to rethink this policy. They have contemplated changes to the list of crimes where even if convicted a person would retain their right to vote. Doing so allows them a voice and helps reintegrate them completely into society.
A Fighting Chance
Many obstacles face those returning to life and work after a period of incarceration. Access to higher education can be limited because of questions on college applications about previous criminal convictions. The opportunity work is curtailed because of the same types of questions. Even the ability to obtain housing can become almost impossible when a potential landlord enquires about past behavior or crimes. To address this issue some states are restricting public and private colleges from asking about convictions in the initial application process. Other states have delayed these questions in the application process for state jobs while other jurisdictions have given incentives to landlords to offer housing to those who have convictions on their record.
There are many other types of reform happening in the criminal justice arena, these are just a few, however they may significantly impact, in a positive way, the chances non-violent offenders have to re-establish a healthy life back in society.