Smart Justice: Recommendations for Reform

Western and many fellow prison-policy scholars have observed that American criminal-justice policy is built on the rheA huge thanks to intern Jerusha Dressel for researching and writing this blog post .

Although the U.S. contains only five percent of the globe’s population, the country houses 20 percent of its prisoners. Numerous individuals are let out of prison every day, but over two-thirds of these individuals will be detained again by police in the next three years and about half will be sent back to prison. Since 1978, the number of individuals in American prisons has increased by 408 percent. In Spokane, 70 percent of the budget goes towards funding the criminal justice system and half of the individuals in prison have not yet had a trial. Additionally, around 80 percent of prisoners have “substance abuse and/or mental health issues.”[1] Something is clearly wrong with these numbers. Instead of reforming the individual and aiding them in becoming functional members of society, the American prison system has become overcrowded and inefficient.

Smart Justice recognizes that there are groups, including ethnic minorities, the impoverished, and the disabled, that are disproportionately negatively affected by the criminal justice system in Spokane and it seeks to remedy this inequality. Its mission is “to implement comprehensive, cost-effective, and research-based smart justice reforms in the Spokane criminal justice system by conducting research, educating, mobilizing impacted voices, advocating and collaborating for a just, strong, and healthy community, which fosters racial equity and opportunities for recovery and integration.”[2] Smart Justice recognizes that hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are being spent on a system that is largely ineffective. The coalition has put forward a list of six recommendations for improvement of the current criminal justice system:

  1. View the problem through a “Smart Justice Lens.”[3] That is, keep in mind the ultimate goal of reforming the system when making judgments and policy changes.
  2. Involve community input in solutions, especially voices from groups that are unduly negatively affected by the current system.
  3. Data on race and ethnicity should be used to improve current systems, rules and regulations.
  4. Reducing the number of individuals in prison through means including jail substitutes and alternate processes for rehabilitation should be explored, especially for “non-violent, low-risk” persons.[4]
  5. Analyze programs with the goal of understanding what is and is not working.
  6. Delay investing resources in increasing the size of the jail.[5]

The third point is referring to data that has demonstrated that certain ethnic groups are disparately impacted by the current justice system. In 2014, the demographics of the Spokane jails and Spokane County were as follows:

sj11There is a definite contrast between these two sets of statistics in the chart above. Although Caucasians make up 86 percent of the Spokane County population, they constitute only 67 percent of the jail population. Moreover, African-Americans compose two percent of the Spokane County population but 12 percent of the jail population and American Indians/Alaska Natives accounted for one percent of the general population but seven percent of the jail population.[6]

Additionally, Smart Justice has expounded upon its fourth recommendation. This policy change included a program that reminded persons of their court dates so that fewer individuals are jailed as a result of a simple “failure to appear.”[7] This point also involves the redirection of funds from financing jail time to paying for programs that aid the offender in overcoming personal problems such as addiction or mental health issues. Additionally, this policy recommendation pushes for an initial assessment of prisoners that helps “ensure that release conditions, plea negotiations and sanctions are matched to the individual’s risks and need.”[8] These evaluations would allow decisions about the offenders punishment and post-prison accountability program be catered to the individual’s requirements. The fourth point also recommends working with individuals once they leave prison, helping them with processes such as finding employment and housing.[9]

A Harvard Magazine article critiquing the American criminal justice system noted: “Western and many fellow prison-policy scholars have observed that American criminal-justice policy is built on the rhetoric of personal responsibility—paying for one’s bad decision—to the exclusion of asking why minority and low-income groups are so much more likely to make bad decisions, or how society fails them.”[10] In a democratic society, there is a tendency towards an individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mindset. This mentality is reflected in the American criminal justice system. However, there are individuals who do not even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. Smart Justice aims to give individuals bootstraps. Instead of simply locking up someone every time they commit a crime, it invites a justice system that looks at offenders on a more individual basis. It allows for a structure that asks what is best for the improvement of the specific person.

 

Chart accessed February 22, 2016 from http://www.spokanecounty.org/data/scljc/subcommittees/racialequity/Data%20Slides%20Final.pdf.
[1] “Vision,” Smart Justice Spokane, accessed February 22, 2016, http://smartjusticewashington.org/vision/.
[2]“About Us,” Smart Justice Spokane, accessed February 22, 2016,  http://smartjusticewashington.org/about-us/.
[3] “Smart Justice Policy Recommendations,” Smart Justice Spokane, January 22, 2013, http://web.archive.org/web/20141225223703/http:/smartjusticewashington.org/media/blogs/spokane/Smart%20Justice%20Policy%20Recommendations.pdf?mtime=1364885768.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Spokane Regional Criminal Justice System Data Slides,” Spokane County, accessed February 22, 2016, http://www.spokanecounty.org/data/scljc/subcommittees/racialequity/Data%20Slides%20Final.pdf.
[7] “Smart Justice Policy Recommendations,” Smart Justice Spokane.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Elizabeth Gudrais, “The Prison Problem,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 2013, http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/03/the-prison-problem.

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