Glenn E. Martin is founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030, and founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign. He will speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, June 30. The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
As a national advocate for ending mass incarceration, I have watched with alarm as President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have taken steps to turn back the clock on criminal justice reform. First came candidate Trump’s claim that black people were living in “hell” and our neighborhoods were like “war zones” — a case of dog whistle politics reminiscent of the “super predator” language used to incite fear of young African Americans and to justify some of the worst crime legislation of the 1990s. Then came the bold-faced lies like his repeated claim that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it's been in 47 years.” In fact, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, the murder rate in the US has been on a steep and steady decline since 1994, and today is at about the same rate as it was in 1962.
Trump’s selection of Sessions was an even more ominous sign of things to come. As a senator from Alabama, Sessions was even out of step with his own party when it came to criminal justice reform. He vociferously opposed a bipartisan proposal called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes, calling it a “criminal leniency bill” that would increase crime. Largely because of Sessions’ opposition, the bill never reached the Senate floor. One of his first acts as head of the Department of Justice was to rescind an Obama-era directive to the Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of private prisons — drug war profiteers and notorious human rights violators.
Now Sessions has undermined one of the most significant reforms delivered by his predecessor, Eric Holder, who urged federal prosecutors to avoid Draconian mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Attorney General Holder’s policy led to the first drop in the federal prison population in thirty-five years. Sessions has issued a memo reversing that policy and instructing prosecutors to push for the most serious charges and the harshest possible penalties. I couldn’t agree more with Eric Holder who said:
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”
But in spite of what is shaping up to be an extremely unfriendly environment in Washington, I am cautiously optimistic that my goal of cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030 is still achievable. The main drivers of mass incarceration have always been policies at the state and local levels; the number of men and women in jails and state prisons dwarfs the number in federal facilities. And it is at the state and local levels that positive smart on crime reforms have been happening for more than a decade. Retrograde positions emanating from Washington will only serve to stiffen the resolve of reformers both inside and outside of government to stay on track.
My optimism is very much tempered by how far we still have to go. Sentencing and other criminal justice reforms have, so far, reduced the number of Americans under correctional supervision very incrementally. The national prison population has been declining by less than 2 percent annually in recent years, and half of the states in the US have actually experienced increases rather than reductions. Admissions to local jails are still soaring as they continue to be used as dumping grounds for people with mental health and substance use issues. More than 700,000 inmates are confined in county and city jails on any average day, and millions of men, women, and youths churn through our jails over the course of a year. Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs that the era of mass incarceration is on the wane.
Some states have dramatically reduced their prison populations while simultaneously experiencing a drop in crime. Between 1999 and 2012 both New York and New Jersey, two of the country’s most populous states, reduced their incarcerated population by 26 percent. California has also downsized its prison population by 23 percent. In all three states, both violent and property crime rates have dropped precipitously. Several “red” states have also brought about more modest reductions in their prison populations. Texas, which has the largest state prison system in the country, is planning to close four prisons this year, on top of four others that have been shuttered since 2012. Mississippi, which has consistently ranked second in the nation in prisoners per capita, slashed its population by 15 percent over the course of one year. It is significant that there has been no public backlash against these changes.
These hopeful changes are the result of policy reforms won by the criminal justice reform movement and our partners in government. The elimination of “three strikes” laws and mandatory minimum sentencing laws has had an impact, as has the proliferation of community supervision and alternative to incarceration diversion programs. Parole and probation reforms have begun to put a brake on the revolving door of men and women returning to prison for technical violations that don’t amount to new crimes. As the benefits of these reforms become more evident, attempts by the federal government to roll them back will likely meet with resistance from local elected leaders and their constituents.
Every day I am reminded of the hard work that lies ahead in dismantling the juggernaut that is mass incarceration and replacing it with a criminal justice system that is fair, humane, and much smaller in scale. And every day I am also reminded of how far we have come in building a diverse and energetic new human rights movement committed to making jails and prisons destinations of last, rather than first, resort. The #CLOSErikers Campaign in New York City is a good example of the growing influence of this movement. The Campaign was spearheaded by my organization, JustLeadershipUSA, and the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice. In a little over one year, it grew to include 145-plus organizations and the support of elected officials, faith leaders, and community groups. The Campaign combined organizing in the communities most impacted by New York’s torture island with protests and aggressive media outreach. Closing Rikers went from being a marginal issue to one Mayor De Blasio could not ignore. On March 31st the Mayor, who had been resisting the calls for closure in the face of mounting pressure, announced that closing Rikers was now the policy of the City of New York. These are the kinds of victories I believe we will see more of, no matter how regressive policies are at the federal level.
The criminal justice reform train has already left the station, and our movement won’t let it reverse its course without a fight.