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'Vision for Justice': 117 Rights Groups Offer Roadmap to Transform US Criminal-Legal System

"We simply cannot live up to the values we profess if we don't end mass incarceration and eliminate the deep racial bias entrenched in the current system."

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More than 100 rights groups on Thursday unveiled a roadmap to overhaul the U.S. criminal-legal system. (Photo: Josh Rushing/cc/ACLU of Louisiana)

"The American criminal-legal system is a stain on our democracy," declares a new policy platform from human and civil rights groups who aim to transform the existing system into one of respect and justice.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Civil Rights Corps, and 115 other rights-focused organizations released Vision for Justice: 2020 and Beyond on Thursday. The platform was shared with presidential candidates this past summer, according to a joint statement from the groups.

The country's current system "replicates and reinforces patterns of racial and economic oppression that trace from slavery, including Black Codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs," says Vision for Justice. "The result is a criminal-legal bureaucracy that denies millions of people the opportunities, legal equality, and human rights that they deserve, even as it fuels the world's highest incarceration rate."

The platform presents political candidates and the public with "a holistic framework that expands our view of public safety and prioritizes upfront investments in noncarceral programs and social services, including additional resources for education, housing, employment, health care, social-emotional supports, and other public benefits."

Vision for Justice features 14 recommendations across three themes:

I. Ensure Equity and Accountability in the Criminal-Legal System

  1. Create a new paradigm for public safety and policing.
  2. Create a new framework for pretrial justice.
  3. Ensure an effective right to counsel.
  4. Decriminalize poverty.
  5. Ensure accountability and transparency in prosecution.

II. Build a Restorative System of Justice

  1. End jails and prisons as we know them in America.
  2. Deprivatize justice.
  3. Dramatically reform sentencing policy.
  4. Support the children of incarcerated parents.
  5. Ease challenges to racial inequity and abolish slavery in prisons.

III. Rebuild Communities

  1. Rebalance spending priorities by investing in communities.
  2. Reimagine reentry, probation, and parole.
  3. Build a school-to-opportunity pipeline.
  4. End the War on Drugs.

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"Even with this comprehensive and unified approach, Vision for Justice: 2020 and Beyond is only a starting point," the policy document says. "A new paradigm for public safety requires not only the solutions enumerated here, but also an ongoing commitment to further reforms."

Vision for Justice outlines a core set of principles the groups believe should inform all efforts to overhaul the American criminal-legal system, emphasizing the importance of decarceral results and ending racial and economic inequality as well as investing in communities most harmed by the current system.

All reforms must be intersectional, holistic, and "rooted in human rights, restorative justice practices, and evidence-based strategies to improve the health, welfare, and safety of communities," according to the document. It also calls for "a participatory decision-making process that empowers community members."

"Throughout the history of this country, the American system of criminal punishment has been used to perpetuate white supremacy, promote inequality, and control marginalized people," Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, said Thursday. "Vision for Justice lays out actionable policy solutions to begin dismantling those harmful systems and begin meaningful reinvestment in the communities that have been devastated by the system as it stands."

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, noted that "the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other developed nation, with more than 6.6 million people under some form of institutionalized restraint—an undue proportion of whom are brown or black."

"We simply cannot live up to the values we profess if we don't end mass incarceration and eliminate the deep racial bias entrenched in the current system," Gupta said. "It is time to remove the stain that has lingered on our democracy as a result of an excessively punitive system."

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