For the past seven years, I have written a year-end “wish list” of criminal justice reforms I’d like to see happen in the common year. Here’s mine for 2021, with ways you can get involved below. What’s on your wish list?
- Immediately stop federal executions — and end the death penalty everywhere. Since July 2020, the Trump Administration has killed more people than were executed by the federal government in the last fifty years. He shows no signs of slowing in this lame-duck session, even though President-elect Biden has promised to end the federal death penalty as soon as he takes office. The death penalty is racist, disparately impacts the poor, does not keep us safe, risks the lives of the wrongly convicted, and is just plain wrong. Let President Trump know you want him to stop federal executions now. And then let’s keep fighting to end the death penalty in the 28 states that still have it as a punishment.
2. Free the Wrongly Convicted. Thousands of innocent people are currently serving years, and sometimes decades, for crimes they did not commit. The legal obstacles to proving innocence are often insurmountable. We should not rest until every last innocent person is freed. If you can, support your local innocence project and the good work that they do.
3. Reform policing. 2020 saw people across the country stand-up against racist police violence and police overreach. Many proposals have been made to change policing practices and policies, particularly in poor communities and in communities of color. Keep the momentum going and keep pushing for meaningful reform.
4. Invest in community-based mental health and drug rehabilitation services. To stop relying on the criminal justice system as our first response to people with mental illness and drug addictions, we need to increase our investment in community mental health services and drug rehabilitation facilities. With comprehensive, affordable, and accessible services, people could call trained mental health and drug counselors — rather than the police — to get the emergency help they need.
5. Elect Reformist Prosecutors. All around the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Austin, the public has elected progressive prosecutors. These men and women are making a tremendous difference in crime policies on the ground — reforming bail practices, refusing to prosecute low-level drug crimes, and promoting more transparent prosecution policies. If you like what your local prosecutor is doing, be sure to let them know. And if you don’t, make a plan to vote them.
6. Support public defender offices. Defense lawyers are the great equalizer in the criminal legal system, standing up for the rights of people too poor to pay for a lawyer. But many public defenders have stunningly high caseloads and limited (or no) access to experts and investigators. To even the playing field, we need to ensure that defenders have the resources they need to effectively do their jobs. Tell your local legislatures to better fund public defender officers.
7. Develop Meaningful Reentry Services. When people are released from prison, they are often handed $50 and a bus ticket (and sometimes less). To reduce recidivism and keep communities safe, let’s give people who are have served their time the tools they need to succeed: access to education, employment, housing, identification, and health care.
8. End Cash Bail and Other Policies that Criminalize Poverty. Poor people are often locked up before trial because they can’t make bail, or after convictions because they can’t pay associated fines or fees. Push for bail reform and for the end of jail as a sanction for being too poor to pay.
9. Decarcerate. The United States remains the world’s largest jailer. During the pandemic, jail and prison populations declined somewhat, but not enough to slow the spread of COVID behind bars or to reverse decades of overly harsh sentencing policies. Let’s make 2021 the year we start releasing people from prisons — in meaningful numbers — who don’t need to be there in the first place.
10. Improve Prison Conditions. Far too many people are locked in tiny prison cells, with limited access to medical care or basic necessities such as soap, safe drinking water, and clean air. COVID and other transmittable diseases flourish in these conditions. And solitary confinement, decried as torture in other countries, continues to be used far too frequently. We need to start recognizing the humanity and dignity of the people locked behind bars and reform our prison policies accordingly.