Criminal Justice Issues
Criminal Justice Issues
The criminal justice system in America is complicated, with lot’s of moving parts. This article will break down some of the major issues and debates around criminal justice today.
One of the biggest issues in criminal justice is mass incarceration. America has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2018, there were around 2.2 million people locked up in America’s prisons and jails. That’s over 20% of the entire world’s prison population, even though America only has around 4% of the total population. And a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are minorities. African Americans and Hispanics make up 32% of the US population, but 56% of those incarcerated. So why does America lock up so many people compared to other countries? Here’s a few of the main causes:
- Harsh sentencing laws – Starting in the 1970s and 80s, mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and other tough on crime policies led to longer prison sentences.
- War on Drugs – The war on drugs has put huge numbers of nonviolent drug offenders behind bars.
- Private prisons – Private prison companies lobby for harsher laws to keep their prisons full.
- Poverty – Poor defendants often can’t afford good legal representation and end up with harsher sentences.
Critics argue that mass incarceration hasn’t reduced crime much, but has destroyed communities and lives. Possible solutions that have been proposed include:
- Reducing/eliminating mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing laws
- Decriminalizing nonviolent drug offenses
- Increasing use of probation, diversion programs, and community supervision as alternatives to incarceration
- Improving education and economic opportunities in high-crime areas
This article from the Brennan Center for Justice has more details on mass incarceration and reform efforts.
As mentioned above, minorities face disproportionate incarceration rates. But disparities exist at every level of the criminal justice system:
- African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police
- Minorities face harsher charges and sentencing
- Black and Hispanic defendants are less likely to get reduced bail
- Incarcerated minorities have reduced access to rehabilitation programs
Racial profiling and unconscious bias have contributed to these disparities. Efforts to combat them include:
- Implicit bias training for police and prosecutors
- Banning racial profiling in law enforcement
- Increasing diversity among police, judges, and lawyers
- Sentencing reforms to reduce disparities
Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is an acclaimed analysis of racial injustice in the criminal justice system. This UN report also documents racial disparities in the US criminal justice system.
With America’s huge prison population, it’s inevitable that some of those incarcerated are innocent. The National Registry of Exonerations has documented over 2,500 exonerations since 1989. Estimates suggest between 2-10% of prisoners are innocent. The leading causes of wrongful convictions include:
- Eyewitness misidentification
- False confessions
- Misconduct by police/prosecutors
- Jailhouse informant testimony
- Invalid or improper forensic science
To reduce wrongful convictions, reforms have been proposed like:
- Videotaping interrogations
- Improving eyewitness identification procedures
- Increasing access to DNA testing
- Stronger penalties for official misconduct
The Innocence Project is a non-profit focused on exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA testing. This study found wrongful conviction rates were higher for black defendants.
With so many people incarcerated, America’s prisons and jails have become dangerously overcrowded. The federal prison system was overcrowded by 12-36% as of 2018. Overcrowding contributes too:
- Increased violence among inmates
- Reduced access to rehabilitative programs
- Deteriorating mental health among prisoners
- Unsanitary, inhumane conditions
Solutions for reducing overcrowding include:
- Reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes
- Increasing good behavior credits
- Expanding early release programs
- Using probation and diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration
The Supreme Court has ordered California to reduce prison overcrowding. But many state prisons remain over capacity. This report discusses strategies to reduce jail overcrowding specifically.
America’s prisons and jails have become the largest mental health facilities in many states. It’s estimated up to half of inmates have mental health issues. Many factors have contributed to the criminalization of mental illness:
- Deinstitutionalization from mental hospitals without adequate community treatment
- Lack of access to mental health services
- Laws criminalizing homelessness and addiction
- Police lacking mental health crisis training
Mentally ill inmates often don’t receive adequate treatment in prison and may suffer severe isolation. Reforms that could help include:
- Increasing community mental health treatment
- Police crisis intervention training
- Mental health courts and diversion programs
- Treatment instead of jail for minor crimes related to mental illness
The Treatment Advocacy Center has researched the prevalence of mental illness in prisons. This article summarizes their findings.
Solitary confinement involves isolating inmates in small cells for 22-24 hours per day, sometimes for weeks or years. Around 80,000 inmates are in solitary on any given day. It was originally introduced as reform to stop violence amongst inmates. But critics argue it amounts to torture and causes severe psychological damage. Alternatives and reforms that have been proposed include:
- Restricting solitary to short periods for safety reasons only
- Increasing mental health screening and treatment
- Providing education and rehabilitation programs
- Using alternative disciplinary methods like loss of privileges
This ACLU report documents the overuse and abuses of solitary confinement in US prisons.
Private for-profit companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group operate around 8% of prisons and detention centers in the US. Private prisons have incentives to maximize profits by cutting costs. Critics argue this leads too:
- Reduced medical care, programming, and rehabilitation
- Increased violence due to understaffing
- Higher recidivism rates upon release
Some states have banned private prisons, and the federal government under Biden has pledged to phase them out. Potential reforms include:
- Stricter government oversight and transparency laws
- Removing profit incentives from criminal justice
- Investing savings from reducing incarceration into rehabilitation programs
This article from the ACLU examines problems with private prisons and advocates banning them.
Fines and Fees
Fines, fees, surcharges and other legal debts fund many courts and corrections systems across the US. But critics argue they disproportionately impact the poor, creating modern debtor’s prisons. Concerns with fines and fees include:
- Poor defendants jailed when they can’t pay fines/fees
- Excessive late fees, payment plan fees, and collection fees
- Loss of driver’s licenses and voting rights over unpaid fines
- For-profit probation companies abusing people unable to pay
Potential reforms include:
- Ending debtors prison practices for the poor
- Capping late fees and ending pay-only probation
- Judges determining ability to pay before imposing fines
- Community service alternatives
This article discusses efforts to eliminate debtors’ prisons for the poor over legal financial obligations.
After numerous high profile incidents of police brutality and killings of minorities, there have been widespread calls for reforming policing. Some proposals include:
- Demilitarizing police equipment and tactics
- Increasing deescalation, bias, and crisis intervention training
- Strengthening accountability through body cams and civilian oversight
- Limiting use of force through new policies and laws
- Improving community relations through neighborhood policing
Campaign Zero has outlined a comprehensive platform for reducing police violence through data-driven reforms. This report from the Brennan Center also examines policing reforms.
Cash Bail Reform
Over 450,000 people in America are detained in jail simply because they can’t afford cash bail. Cash bail disproportionately impacts the poor and minorities. Being jailed pretrial makes people more likely to plead guilty and receive harsher sentences. Reform efforts underway include:
- Replacing cash bail with risk assessment tools
- Banning cash bail for minor misdemeanors
- Providing bail assistance funds
- Releasing more defendants on own recognizance
Here is more on cash bail reform efforts:
- Limiting cash bail through court challenges – Civil rights groups have filed lawsuits arguing excessive cash bail violates the 14th Amendment. Courts have issued rulings limiting cash bail in places like Harris County, Texas.
- Automated risk assessments – Many jurisdictions are adopting risk assessment tools to recommend release conditions. But these tools have faced bias concerns.
- Pretrial services – Providing supervision, reminders and transportation for defendants released pretrial can reduce failure to appear rates.
- Text reminders – Studies show simple text reminders about court dates significantly reduce failure to appears, allowing for more release.
Bail reform efforts balance public safety with avoiding unnecessary pretrial jailing. Allowing more pretrial release can reduce overcrowding and costs without increasing crime rates. But implementation of risk assessment tools needs to be monitored for fairness. This implementation guide provides best practices on reforming cash bail systems.
In conclusion, America’s criminal justice system faces major challenges from mass incarceration to racial disparities. But reform efforts are underway in many areas, guided by research on data-driven policies that balance public safety, fairness, and rehabilitation. Sustained progress will require continued examination of what policies and practices work, as well as a commitment to evidence-based approaches to reducing crime while upholding justice.