What will it take to reform America’s justice system?

What will it take to reform America’s justice system?

John Jay College presents the findings of the American Justice Summit 

Immediate reform of America’s ways of dealing with crime is urged in a report out today from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York.

Six hundred crime specialists convened in the first American Justice Summit last November, as the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, deliberated on the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man by a white police officer. The Summit examined why America, with 2.3 million in jail, has the highest rate of incarceration of any western democracy and overwhelming evidence of racial inequity. “A stunning one in every 11 black Americans are in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole in the US, and the rate is even higher in many poor urban communities,” notes the report. This week’s indictment of six policemen in Baltimore—three of them black—follows the videoed shooting of the unarmed Walter Scott in South Carolina.

“Moving the Needle on Justice Reform” is a collation of the recommendations from people deeply involved with crime—on the streets, in the police precincts, in the courtrooms and legislatures, in the prisons and probation services: NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, author Piper Kerman, activist Harry Belafonte, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, CNN and The New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and Equal Justice Initiative Director, Bryan Stevenson.

Among the findings:


Many of the policies and practices enacted during the run-up to mass incarceration are too generalized. They preclude individualized assessments, case-by-case discretion, and evidence-based interventions. Summit participants insistently gave evidence of how multitudes of incarcerated men and women do not belong in prison. The critics proposed sentencing reform as a way to reduce prison populations without further endangering the public. In particular, participants cited targets for reform surrounding life sentences without the possibility for parole, felony sentencing for non-violent drug users, and mandatory-minimum sentencing.

Whereas many speakers called for shorter sentences, some specifically emphasized the injustices of life sentences without the possibility for parole. Panelists who connected overcrowded prisons to sentencing practices also identified nonviolent drug users as inflating the costs of mass incarceration. Mandatory minimums, they testified, are obstacles to sentencing reform for nonviolent offenses; they are irrational, punitive, and rigid, ignoring the particularities of individual cases. A rational efficiency associated with eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing would have two benefits: It would reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and it would imbue the system with an underlying mission of rehabilitation rather than a spirit of arbitrary punishment.

Solitary confinement

Criticism of practices in prison brought a vigorous response from Norman Seabrook, president of the NYC Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association. Solitary confinement was a necessary measure in a prison that had become “the new dumping ground for the city.” It acted as a deterrent to violent behavior among prisoners—and “there are no [other] deterrents in the [jail] system.”


There was a consensus that we do not do very well either in preparing offenders for release or giving them a decent chance to re-enter society. More job training and more visits from loved ones would foster positive socialization and scaffold efforts to rebuild families and communities before an offender’s difficult  return to normal life. The goal must be to improve their human and social capital. Such efforts would do much to mitigate the likelihood they’d soon be back in prison. Investing in inside programs would save the costs of repeat offenses, reduce recidivism rates and shrink the overall prison population.

Panelists who work as prisoner advocates or inside the criminal justice system recognized how difficult it is to remove the stigma of a previous offense. Fostering legitimate employment opportunities for individuals with criminal records would reduce the risks of their forced reliance on  underground economies.

Community policing

“I think we have to approach law enforcement from the perspective of community building—a philosophy of engagement with the community, not punishing the community,” said Ford Foundation president
Darren Walker. Participants fully recognized the difficult task of law enforcement officers. Police and other officials need expert help to learn how to use community-building tactics with would-be offenders at their first point of contact with the criminal justice system. Police forces need options other than putting offenders in handcuffs and arresting them, Summit participants said. Police-community relations should be motivated by community building rather than community punishment.

Drug arrests

Research has for years identified the criminalizing of substance abuse—the “war on drugs”—as a prime cause of America’s overcrowded prisons. A consensus emerged that incarceration, punishment, and isolation should be largely reserved for individuals who intentionally cause significant harm to society or to their fellow human beings.

Panelists who connected overcrowded prisons to sentencing practices also identified nonviolent drug users as inflating the costs of mass incarceration. Most agreed that the problems these offenders faced were only exacerbated by imprisonment. Property offenders were cited as largely receiving sentences disproportionate to the harm of the offense.

The consensus of the Summit experts was that nonviolent drug use should not be regarded as a felony. If policy were changed to reflect that view, it would yield immediate reductions in the prison population and the costs of the current ineffective, overly punitive approach. Further, eliminating felony sentences for nonviolent drug users would spare this large subgroup of the incarcerated population the complications of reintegration and  free up resources for adequate treatment.

The American Justice Summit 2014 was organized by Tina Brown Live Media, in partnership with John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Tina Brown began the American Justice Summit with a plea to “send a message to our wretched, feuding congress…that the very character of our nation is at stake, and this must happen.”