A New Path for Reform: Fuse Social Justice with Criminal Justice

A “reimagined” justice system that shifts from punishment to social justice as its central operating principle can be the most effective long-term means of ending the harms inflicted by the current system on millions of Americans, according to Bruce Western, one of the nation’s leading experts on mass incarceration.

A “reimagined” justice system that shifts from punishment to social justice as its central operating principle can be the most effective long-term means of ending the harms inflicted by the current system on millions of Americans, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on mass incarceration.

Bruce Western

Bruce Western

Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, argues that while the justice reform movement to date has moved many courts, correctional institutions and law enforcement agencies away from the hardline strategies of recent decades, fundamental change requires policymakers to “cut the connections between incarceration, poverty and racial inequality.”

That involves, in turn, thinking “outside of traditional justice agencies,” Western wrote in a paper released as part of Square One, a multi-disciplinary project aimed at generating new ideas about justice reform.

“A reimagined justice system will concede some jurisdiction to other agencies—departments of housing, child services, public health, education and labor [so that] criminal justice becomes social justice, and the goals of promoting safety and reducing the harms of violence are continuous with providing order, predictability, and material security in daily life.”

Square One was launched last fall by Arnold Ventures (formerly the Laura and John Arnold Foundation) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Western’s paper was the first of a set of papers released under the auspices of  Square’s One’s “Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy,” which has assembled about two dozen researchers, practitioners, policy makers, advocates, and community representatives to meet periodically and “generate and cultivate new ideas” for reforming the system.

Western noted that despite the impressive reductions in incarceration rates—from a peak of 762 people per 100,000 in 2007 to 695 people per 100,000 in 2018—the U.S. still imprisoned more individuals than any other country in the world, with some 2.17 million behind bars and another 4.85 million on probation and parole (according to 2018 figures).

The victims of what he called the “punitive revolution” that took shape in the 1980s were overwhelmingly— and disproportionately— black, male and poor.

‘Vast Apparatus’ For Punishment

Only a fundamental transformation of government policy can reverse a justice system that has become “a vast apparatus organized to punish, exclude and close off opportunities,” Western wrote.

He said the rethinking needed to begin by “settling accounts” with America’s history of systemic racial oppression that grew out of slavery, and has continued in various and more subtle forms ever since—most importantly by forcing people of color into an endless loop of housing and educational segregation, poverty, crime and constricted employment opportunities.

“Of all the different ways that policymakers could have responded to the problem of crime, a course was chosen that greatly curtailed the liberty of a segment of the population who have had to fight for their freedom from the beginning,” Western wrote.

But economic inequity is the principal driver of today’s dysfunctional system, he added, noting that “inequalities in criminal punishment have grown most along economic, not racial lines.”

According to Western, the only way to break the cycle, therefore, is to replace punishment with a “socially integrative” approach, which he defined as creating conditions in America’s poorest communities for families and individuals to prosper and develop the kind of social “connections” that provide economic security and public safety.

Grassroots Change

Although this seemed to imply major new public investment in housing, schools and employment, Western focused on grassroots policy changes that involved local justice agencies developing close partnerships with community services and institutions working with at-risk individuals and families.

For instance, “in the aftermath of violence, our courts and correctional agencies should help rebuild the social membership of victims and offenders alike—both of whom have been alienated from the social compact by violence.”

Other changes such as ending money bail, reforming probation and parole, and reducing the burden of court fines and fees on the justice-involved were also important tools for reform, he wrote.

But, added Western, most important of all was changing the social and economic framework under which the justice system currently operates in order for the various strands of reform ideas to take root.

“With social integration as a basic principle of justice reform, we can revisit the libertarian, scientific and ethical reform impulses of the current period,” he wrote.

Western’s paper is available for downloading here.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Justice Reformers, ‘Fueled by Sense of Urgency,’ Vow to End Status Quo

Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western, leaders of the so-called Square One Project, say their project will sponsor a series of roundtables across the nation aimed at transforming the justice system. According to Travis, the status quo in criminal justice is “profoundly unacceptable.”

A new push to “reimagine” the criminal justice system is “fueled by a sense of urgency” that the status quo in criminal justice is “profoundly unacceptable,” says Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Jeremy Travis. Courtesy John Jay College

Travis, former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Bruce Western, now of Columbia University’s Justice Lab, led a study by a National Academy of Sciences panel four years ago that traced the sharp growth in incarceration in the United States since the 1970s.

Now, Travis and Western are leaders of a new effort funded by the Arnold Foundation along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations that was formally launched on Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The so-called Square One Project, promoting the idea that the justice system should be redesigned from “square one,” consists of two primary segments—an “executive session on the future of justice policy” that will help generate “a new narrative of justice in America,” and a series of roundtables across the nation to hold open discussions of key criminal justice issues.

Travis and Western made clear that the new project was conceived as a follow-up to their study on the nation’s prison growth. (It was the same issue—the fact that more than two million people are locked up in prisons and jails—that prompted former U.S. Sen. James Webb to promote the so-far-unsuccessful idea of a new national crime commission.)

Western noted on Thursday that since the National Academy of Sciences study was issued, the U.S. incarceration rate has declined a bit but remains far above the level of the mid-1970s.

In a paper on criminal justice reform issued as the new project began, Western cited “a large racial disparity: black men are five to six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men.”

Despite a series of criminal justice reforms in recent years, the fact remains that “prison populations are extraordinarily large and criminal justice agencies are focused in myriad ways on the task of punishment,” Western said.

Bruce Western

Bruce Western

One focus of the “reimagining” justice project will be on the intersection of three problems: racial inequalities, poverty and violence, Western explained.

He wrote that poor neighborhoods must “contend with violence” and that “violence can flourish where poverty has depleted a neighborhood of steady employment community organizations, and a stable population that can monitor street life.”

The first roundtable sponsored by the project, to be held in October at North Carolina Central University in Durham, will concern issues involving race and criminal justice.

Arthur Rizer

Arthur Rizer

Another strand of the project discussed on Thursday was a “call for a revised set of values in criminal justice” from Arthur Rizer of the R Street Institute, a research organization that describes its aim as helping “to promote free markets and limited, effective government.”

Rizer published a paper for the project advocating application of the limited government concept to criminal justice. He contends that “the overcriminalization and overincarceration of justice-involved individuals has resulted in the depletion of state coffers across the nation.”

“Local, state, and federal policymakers should be continuously seeking … to increase an individual’s likelihood of rehabilitation and, therefore, to reduce crime while wisely stewarding taxpayer dollars,” Rizer argues.

Travis stressed that a goal of the project, which is scheduled to last for three years, will be to “build a network” of people nationwide who will press for more effective criminal justice practices.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.

from https://thecrimereport.org