We all want a criminal justice system that’s both effective and fair. But all too often, it comes up short.
That doesn’t mean there are no solutions. Now more than ever, we’re seeing innovative reforms that offer encouraging results.
This month is National Criminal Justice Month. To commemorate it, let’s talk about some of the most promising — but by no means only — ideas for criminal justice reform.
Civil asset forfeiture reform
Over the years, misguided policies from state and federal lawmakers have forced law enforcement officials to fund their departments at the expense of individual due process rights.
This practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, incentivizes police officers to take property, often without even charging that person with a crime.
It gets worse.
If you want your property back, you must submit to a complex and tangled process — which can cost more than the value of the property for which you’re petitioning.
It’s up to you to prove that the authorities are wrongly holding your property. The government doesn’t need to prove that it is rightfully holding your stuff.
Does that sound like due process?
Here’s the kicker: The authorities can even sell your things and pocket the money to pad their budget.
Civil asset forfeiture erodes trust between hardworking police departments and the communities they protect. It needlessly puts officers in danger. And, of course, it tramples on the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Pre-trial policy reform
Right now, nearly half a million Americans await trial in jail cells. While many don’t pose a threat to public safety, they cannot afford bail, meaning they cannot work to provide for their families.
There is a time and place for bail. If an accused person is likely to flee or commit another offense before trial, it can make sense to detain them pretrial.
For many, however, excessively high bail turns jail into a debtor’s prison. This makes no one safer. It certainly makes our criminal justice system less fair. And it violates the Bill of Rights.
There are several possible solutions to fix this.
Risk-assessment tools can more accurately determine who poses a flight risk or a danger to others, and who does not. These approaches — whether computer-based algorithms or a paper form — are much more accurate than simple human guesswork alone.
Revisiting how we handle pre-trial detention would be another way forward for our criminal justice system.
Mandatory minimum sentencing reform
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws currently require judges to hand down minimum sentences for certain crimes, with no judicial discretion allowed.
They cannot be lowered, no matter the circumstances of the crime.
There are several problems with this approach.
- They don’t lower crime, as their proponents insist.
- They prevent judges from doing their jobs. They take the dispensing of justice out of the hands of the judicial system.
- They treat all criminal cases as essentially the same, regardless of circumstance, details, nuance and complexity.
Restoring discretion to the process of sentencing would allow judges to produce fairer results while still protecting public safety.