As President Donald Trump was vowing to "restore law and order," long understood to mean heightened police activity and mass incarceration, advocates of criminal justice reform on Monday published an alternative blueprint that would reduce crime and protect police—all while upholding individual rights and reducing the prison population.
Trump made the remarks at the National Peace Officer's Memorial Service, where he told the assembled law enforcement officials that his administration "is determined—totally determined—to restore law and order and justice for all Americans, and we're going to do it quickly."
That proclamation came on the back of a new directive issued by the Department of Justice last week that ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the most aggressive charges possible, even for low-level offenders, which rights groups said were outdated policies that would only worsen the problem of mass incarceration.
In response to that order, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has put forth what it says is a pro-active agenda for lawmakers with a number of concrete steps that would "make our country safer and fairer."
Criminal justice reform in recent years has been a bipartisan issue, the Center notes, and despite the Trump administration's drive to criminalize, many of the president's supporters also believe the way the U.S. prosecutes and incarcerates people should be changed.
"Too much progress has been made in recent years for supporters of reform to take their foot off the gas now," said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program. "It won't be easy, especially with [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions as the nation's top cop, but he increasingly stands alone. Members of his own party and America's law enforcement officers are pushing for change."
Further, the report states:
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Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders alike acknowledge that unnecessarily long federal prison sentences continue to impede rehabilitation, driving recidivism and economic inequality. And according to a new poll from the Charles Koch Institute, 81 percent of Trump voters believe criminal justice reform is a "very important" or "somewhat important" issue. More than half know someone who is in or has been to prison.
With less than five percent of the world's population, but nearly one quarter of its prisoners, the massive U.S. prison system is a significant burden on local governments and economies. In the past ten years, 27 states have passed measures to reduce crime and imprisonment together.
However, the report notes, that while "changes to state and local law are necessary...history proves that decisions made in Washington affect the whole criminal justice system, for better or worse." Not only does "federal funding driv[e] state policy," but the federal government sets the national tone."
"Without a strong national movement, the bold reforms needed at the state and local level cannot emerge," the authors state.
To that end, the report proposes a number of bills that lawmakers can get behind including measures to re-route funding to states that both reduce crime and incarceration; end federal incarceration for lower-level crimes; and create programs to train police in crime prevention and community engagement. In addition, the Center asks lawmakers to support the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which would reduce prison sentences for non-violent crimes. That bill is expected to be reintroduced this session by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Further, the Brennan Center has put forth a number of executive actions that could be taken by the executive branch. For instance, the DOJ can change its performance measures for grants to reward states who make strides to reduce crime and incarceration in tandem and ensure the federal prosecutors allot their resources to addressing the "most serious crimes." Also, Trump could commute sentences for detainees charged prior to the Fair Sentencing Act, that addressed the wide and discriminatory sentencing disparity between for possession of crack versus cocaine.