A critical part of criminal justice reform is making it easier for those with criminal records to reenter society. This means greater job training, more employment opportunities, affordable housing, and stronger laws prohibiting discrimination and facilitating the expungement of old convictions. Successful reentry into a free society, however, requires more than just the basic needs of life. It also requires the restoration of basic rights, and there is no more basic right in a democracy than the right to vote.
Last month, the U.S. state with the highest rate of incarceration (in the country with the largest prison population) took steps to reduce its incarceration of non-violent offenders.
Oklahoma’s Governor Kevin Stitt (Republican) commuted the sentences of over 500 inmates. All of these individuals were non-violent offenders with an average age of less than 40. This decision points to a larger shift in conventional wisdom concerning mass incarceration and its effect on public safety.
A 2017 study by the Vera Institute of Justice demonstrates the weak correlation over the past 40 years between incarceration and public safety. Out of concern for the skyrocketing cost of overcrowded prisons, cost-conscious public officials have joined with those desiring a less punitive, equitable system to rethink criminal justice in America. A consensus is building around the need to start directing resources to rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration. According to Governor Stitt, “[the goal] has been about changing the culture and process as we prepare to release individuals and to help set them up for success upon reentry into society.”
Until recently, conventional wisdom among prosecutors dictated that long prison terms were vital to public safety. They took seriously the direction “to charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offenses,” and measured success in terms of trial wins and convictions. Conventional wisdom, however, is changing from this purely punitive model as prosecutors are now beginning to recognize the great price we pay — both the dollar and human cost — for mass incarceration in America.
At a panel discussion earlier this week, “Prosecutors and the Criminal Justice Reform Movement,” Lucy Lang, Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (“IIP”) at John Jay College, and Sam Rivera, Associate Vice President of Housing at The Fortune Society, discussed the role of the prosecutor in bringing about systemic change.