A fresh dialogue on criminal justice reform changes the game for 2024


We need criminal justice reform now more than ever. Despite progress in various facets of American society, the treatment of individuals behind bars remains shockingly inhumane.

The recent execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama, using a method reserved for animals in veterinary practices, serves as a haunting testament. This chilling case is not an isolated case, but rather a blatant reflection of the widespread abuse and dehumanization occurring in American prisons and the American criminal justice system.

Despite this, examples of red and blue states passing bipartisan legislation to reform the system mark a move away from exploiting fear to adopt just policies and challenge historical taboos on a national scale.

There has been a notable shift in political discourse around the once-taboo phrase “criminal justice reform,” which has taken a step backwards during a pandemic. crime spike. Public opinion on crime and criminal justice has fundamentally changed in recent years and the majority now favor tackling the roots of crime rather than strict punishments, by a ratio of 2 to 1: 65 percent against 32 percent.

Even some self-described Republicans, traditionally in favor of punishment and law enforcement, prefer a more reformative approach.

The way we talk about criminal justice reform is changing. Today, rather than solely discussing punishment as a response to individual crimes, communities are focusing on public health, mental health, and the fact that harsh prison sentences alone will not make us safer.

With the last year behind us, we can look back and see that criminal justice reform has resurfaced as a bipartisan priority across the country. Many leading criminal justice organizations saw 2023 as their most productive year in a long time, Last year, 35 states passed legislation recognizing the inequities of our current system..

  • In Pennsylvania, House Bill 900, known as the Dignity of Incarcerated Women Act, was passed unanimously. The bill, sponsored by state Reps. Morgan Cephas (Democrat of Philadelphia) and Mike Jones (Republican of York), enshrined the fair and humane treatment of women in Pennsylvania law, prohibiting obstruction and solitary confinement for pregnant people and providing trauma-informed training for pregnant women. correctional officers who interact with pregnant people, among other measures.
  • In Mississippi, Cynetra Freeman realized that many of the people coming through her reentry organization were struggling with child support payments that had skyrocketed during their time in prison. As a justice-affected person herself, she recognized the need for this change to eliminate the residual drains of incarceration. She work with Republican lawmakers and Dream.Org, where I am the advocacy manager, for adoption of a bill freeze these payments during incarceration. Instead of treating incarceration like voluntary unemployment, Mississippi judges must now consider incarceration when changing child support payment plans.
  • In Kentucky, a group of harm reduction advocates, primarily from Appalachia, teamed up with a Republican lawmaker to advance the legislation. decriminalization of fentanyl test strips. Fentanyl is a leading cause of overdoses and is unlikely to be eliminated from the streets anytime soon. Until this bill, test strips were admissible as evidence of drug paraphernalia and as a criminal offense. The life-saving measure passed unanimously, ensuring that those who wore them for their safety or that of others would not be punished.
  • In Washington, formerly incarcerated activist Eugene Youngblood joined with local groups to encourage lawmakers to prevent minors' files from being used as fodder for sentencing enhancements following a new charge as an adult. The new bill prevents the perpetuation of prejudice against racial minorities and takes into account an individual's development as they age.

Without continued bipartisanship, there is no guarantee how long the window for change will remain open. As Smith’s case demonstrates, the policies of the criminal justice system remain inhumane. This highlights the urgency of seizing the moment. Dream.Org's strategy has always focused on a strong, long-term vision to end mass incarceration, achieved through winning reforms wherever we can identify openings.

The developments in Alabama are not enough to derail the positive momentum of 2023; the stage is set for a pro-reform trajectory that will resonate in the upcoming election year, offering a glimmer of hope for a more just and equitable future. This moment highlights that the progress made will not be sustained without the continued support of both parties.

In the coming year of elections and campaigns, we cannot lose sight of what we can gain by joining forces.

Janos Marton is the Advocacy Manager at Dream.Org. Marton ran for Manhattan District Attorney in 2020 on a platform of responsible decarceration and continues to advocate for policies that prioritize people over prisons.

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