My passion for criminal justice reform stems from personal experience.
Early in my business career, I was arrested and charged by a corrupt prosecutor. I was fortunate to have the resources to defend myself but far too many people, especially people of color, are not so fortunate.
That’s why for over 20 years, I’ve supported the ACLU’s efforts to fix our broken justice system. In 2015 the ACLU created the Trone Center for Justice and Equality in recognition of June and my longtime support.
I’m also proud to chair the ACLU’s Private Sector and Education Advisory Council. The council recently released a report showing how hiring returning citizens is good for business. The report uses data from my own company, where we’ve banned the box and hired over 100 returning citizens. We’ve found that they are some of our best employees.
In Congress, I will continue the fight for criminal justice reform. Our country needs a comprehensive approach that tackles problems on the streets, in our courts, and in our prisons. My top priorities on this issue are:
Body Cameras for Police Officers
We need to address the role of police officers in our communities. Body cameras for police officers are a no-brainer first step. Congress should use every means available to have body cameras adopted nationwide and make sure police departments have strict rules to ensure they remain turned on during all police encounters.
Congress needs to focus on community-based policing.
Community-Based Policing and Prevention
Congress also needs to focus on community-based policing. From 2009 to 2014 the federal government gave police departments tens of thousands of machine guns, ammunition magazines, camouflage and night vision equipment, and armored cars. Police should have the tools necessary to ensure public safety, but that does not require us to turn our cities and towns into war zones, as we witnessed with the excessive militarization of police in Ferguson. Police departments need the resources to work with communities to disrupt gang activity and prevent more violent crime. Interlock devices in cars will also help reduce drunk driving and keep our communities and police officers safe.
A Fair Trial
Every defendant should have the right to an attorney with the experience and time necessary to devote to their defense. Across the country, our public defender system is in shambles. In Fresno County, California, public defenders are expected to handle 700 cases a year. Congress should lead the way by funding more public defenders in the federal court system and limiting the number of cases that they have to take.
In addition, we need to overhaul the bail and pretrial detention system. A 2013 study found that 50% of pretrial detainees were in jail because they could not afford to pay bail of less than $2,500. It’s even worse for Latino and Black defendants who often receive higher bail than white defendants. This causes an undue financial burden on the defendants and their families, limits the defendants’ ability to participate in their own defense, and wastes taxpayer money.
Congress should pass the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act. This bipartisan bill would use Justice Department grants to incentivize states to implement pretrial detention reform and require them to show that they’re meeting certain guidelines as a condition for receiving the grants.
America has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
End the War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration
Our prison population has increased by over 630% since 1972. This explosion in incarceration is due to our failed war on drugs. Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump have doubled down on these failed policies by instructing prosecutors to seek the harshest sentence possible for even the lowest level offenders.
With an administration that is determined to take us backward, the time for Congress to act is now. We should treat drug addiction as a public health issue not as a criminal one. And we need to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses so that judges can use their discretion to get low-level offenders into treatment programs rather than sending them to prison for decades.
End Long-Term Solitary Confinement
We need to end long-term solitary confinement, ensuring that it is only used for limited periods of time and only when necessary. Each year 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the U.S., many of them for infractions as minor as having a pack of cigarettes. Long-term solitary confinement has severe psychological effects on inmates and is considered torture under international law.
We need to value the lives of inmates and get them the resources they need to positively contribute to society.
We also need to redefine success in our prisons. This is not just a criminal justice reform issue but a public safety one, too. Preparing inmates to earn a living once they’re out of prison lowers crime rates because they’re not forced to turn back to crime to support themselves.
There’s no reason we can’t adopt a rehabilitative approach to our prison system. European countries like Germany actively prepare inmates to reenter society successfully and have lower recidivism rates as a result. We ought to value the lives of inmates and get them the resources they need to positively contribute to society. Former prisoners should be eligible to receive Pell Grants and access to student-aid programs if they want to develop their skills and credentials to become meaningful contributors to society. Prisons should be able to serve as places of training and education. Over 60% of inmates in the United States are functionally illiterate and over 70% cannot read above a fourth-grade level. We shouldn’t waste money on incarceration simply because people don’t have the educational skills they need to succeed. A majority of states spend more on incarceration than on education per person. It’s a moral and economic disgrace.
Right now, we fund prisons based on the number of inmates that they have, giving them no incentive to stop inmates from reoffending. Let’s change this by providing bonuses to wardens and staff in prisons where inmates do not re-offend after being released. This will help encourage prison wardens and staff to develop innovative programs for education, job training, and other areas that can help people succeed when they get out of prison. The bonuses can be paid with money saved on incarceration with no additional cost to the taxpayers.