Bold Criminal Justice Reform Needed
A smarter approach could save money, reduce mass incarceration and assure safety.
State Legislatures throughout America are addressing the problem of mass incarceration. Budget constraints and poor outcomes have inspired bi-partisan efforts in both conservative and liberal legislatures. Wisconsin is no different and several important steps have been made in recent years to address problems within our criminal justice system, yet serious work remains.
Without bold reform, Wisconsin will continue to spend more general fund dollars on prisons than colleges and maintain our unacceptable distinction as America’s leader in the racial disparity between the incarceration rates of African Americans compared to whites. Neither is defensible nor sustainable.
Public debate surrounding criminal justice reform is often difficult. Victimization is real and should not be ignored, nor undervalued. The powerful emotions that criminal justice policies invokes inspired successful political campaigns from both sides of the aisle, leading to “tough on crime” politics and policy. That era is dying. The truth is that “tough on crime” doesn’t make us safer; it only makes us feel safer. Smart justice reform can make our communities safer while creating a more efficient and effective system.
First, who we target matters. A small percentage of people are responsible for a large percentage of crime. Reduce the rate of reoffending among this population and the crime rate will go down. The decision regarding who we target is a calculation of risk, needs, and victim input. Given these basic inputs, the justice system should look to apply an intervention that, based on evidence of success, will have the greatest likelihood of ending the person’s criminal behavior. Less repeat offenders equals less crime, which equals safer communities.
Second, how much we intervene matters. Most people self-correct. Age, family, education, and employment tend to result in general law-abiding behaviors. Most people that commit a crime do not go on to commit more crime. The same calculation of risk, needs, and victim input should inform the application of the appropriate intervention, based on evidence of success that will have the greatest likelihood of ending the person’s criminal behavior. Over-intervention can have adverse effects. Placing low-risk and high-risk offenders together, like in a prison or jail, can make low-risk offenders more likely to reoffend. Again, less repeat offenders equals less crime, which equals safer communities.
The failing of our criminal justice system is a lack of time, information, and flexibility. Our responses must be better-individualized and informed through the use of evidence-based decision making, increased objectivity, and a relentless commitment to intervening in a way most likely to reduce crime. More time and attention must be spent on the early decision of whether to arrest and prosecute. Getting these decisions right is critical because stopping or even slowing down the criminal justice system once it starts is incredibly difficult and expensive.
The Smart-on-Crime Reform package of bills totals over 25 individual proposals. Some bills are simple, cheap, and could be adopted quickly to make our justice system function better tomorrow. Some bills are complex and require serious investment and long-term structural changes. The bills are grouped into three packages; the first package involves “pre-conviction reforms;” the next “post-conviction reforms;” and the final package of bills relate to “collateral” reforms outside of the structure of a criminal prosecution.
These bills can be first steps in a process of increasing efficiency, fairness and safety.
Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, represents District 18 in the Wisconsin Assembly.