The past several years have seen a growing awareness among Americans that our criminal justice policies are flawed and need to be reformed. The premise has included the system being harsher on minorities than non-minorities, too severe on non-violent drug offenders, and just plain old inefficient and ineffective. All of this appears to be true,…

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By Christopher Zoukis

In a surprising move, Attorney General Eric Holder has teamed up with Tea Party-backed Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee to fight against felon disenfranchisement — the reality of a person convicted of a felony subsequently losing certain civil rights due to the felony conviction.  This group of strange bedfellows is primarily concerned with the voting rights of those previously convicted of felonies.

According to news reports, 11 states deny or restrict voting rights to persons who have been under some form of correctional control (i.e., incarceration, probation, parole).  This equates to approximately 5.8 million disenfranchised felons.  In states like Florida that have particularly onerous felon disenfranchisement laws, upwards of 10 percent of the population is barred from voting.  According to Attorney General Holder, 1 in 13 black American adults are prohibited from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws; 1 in 5 in Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida.

Now, with Attorney General Holders’ legacy as a justice reformer in question, he has stepped up his work to revise some of these harmful laws, which some have suggested actually encourage repeat crime and recidivism.  On February 11, 2014 he and Senators Paul and Lee participated in a forum at the Georgetown Law School to discuss the issues of mandatory minimum sentencing, prison expansion, and felon disenfranchisement.

While this is a laudable step in the right direction, most recent public policy discussions concerning American criminal justice reform have tended to cherry pick small groups of offenders to help.  This group, as others, has focused on nonviolent drug offenders.  For example, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has also focused almost exclusively on drug offenders.  Even the Obama administration has their favorite group to help: nonviolent, minority crack cocaine offenders who have served long sentences under the old, draconian crack cocaine sentencing guidelines.

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By Dianne Frazee-Walker

There is good news about the condition of America’s criminal justice system. Both conservatives and liberals are agreeing that the time has come to revamp the prison system. Everyone is on the same page about how mass incarceration is costing the country too much money. For some reason when an out of control problem hits people’s pocketbooks, collaboration happens. When incarcerating a prisoner for a year reaches the same cost as student tuition at Harvard University, it is time to make a change.   

 Realization that American prisons are being financed to perpetuate social insufficiency, recidivism, and desperateness has caused legislation to reconsider the high cost of incarceration. The result is crime rates have decreased and the public is beginning to support non-violent offender reform as opposed to long-term prison sentences.

Over the last three years prison doors have been shutting on the outside instead of the inside. The prison population is not large enough to fill America’s prisons and they are gradually going out of business. From academics, progressive law enforcement groups, innovative rehabilitation programs and victim crime advocates to even fundamentalists, all have been struggling to repair our broken justice system, which has turned into a perpetual misery machine.    

America’s mass incarceration dilemma has forced society to take a long hard look at what can be done to transform criminals into productive citizens.

Even states that use punitive law-and-order approaches in an attempt to conquer crime are now desperate enough to embrace tolerant rehabilitation programs once thought of as bleeding heart liberalism alternatives only a few years ago. 

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Courtesy of Student Life and Senior Sports Editor Alex Leichenger

America’s criminal justice system is racially and socially oppressive, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued in her recent speech on campus.

Addressing a crowd of undergraduates, law students, adults from the community, and local middle and high school students, Alexander, author of the 2010 bestselling book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said most Americans believe their justice system only requires minor tinkering.

But, Alexander said, the facts that prison corporations are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and many rural communities are economically reliant on prisons has led her to believe that more fundamental social movement is required to reform the system.

“If you’re not directly impacted by this system, you can easily go your whole life without having any idea of what is going on,” Alexander said.

The Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom in Anheuser-Busch Hall was packed to capacity for Alexander’s speech, and extra chairs were needed even in the overflow room. It was the keynote address at the conference, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Washington University School of Law’s Clinical Education Program.

Alexander talked about how Americans can turn on their televisions and see symbols of African-American social progress like President Barack Obama and the first family but that those examples are not fully representative.

“But then you drive less than a mile from the White House, and you find the other America,” Alexander said.

“Today, millions of children in America grow up believing that one day, they too will go to jail,” she added. “In our poorest, most segregated communities, young people are shuttled from our decrepit, under-funded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”

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By Peter Dujardin, pdujardin@dailypress.com

NEWPORT NEWS — A federal lawmaker from the Peninsula is helping to lead a bipartisan effort to reduce minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which he and other backers say will translate into fewer prisoners and large cost savings.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, the “Smarter Sentencing Act.” It was introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, with a companion bill introduced in the Senate in July.

“Mandatory minimums have been studied for a long time,” Scott said in an interview Thursday. “And all these studies conclude that mandatory minimums fail to reduce crime, waste the taxpayers’ money, and often require the judges to impose sentences that violate common sense.”

The legislation would also increase the number of defendants eligible for a waiver that allows judges to sentence particular defendants below the minimums. That is, the bill would allow that “safety valve” to be available for people with more on their criminal records than is now the case.

Reducing the number of people jailed for drug crimes — and giving more sentencing discretion to judges — has become a bipartisan push in both houses of Congress.

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By Nicole D. Porter, The Sentencing Project

For more than forty years, the correctional system has been dominated by growth. In 1969, the crime rate was 3,680 per 100,000 population and the incarceration rate was 97 state and federal prisoners per 100,000 population. Today the crime rate is slightly lower at 3,667 per 100,000 population but the incarceration rate is five times higher, at 492 per 100,000. The culture of punishment, in part driven by political expediency with “tough-on-crime” policies marketed as the solution to “fear of crime,” has been aggressively implemented at every stage of the criminal justice process: arresting, charging, sentencing, confining, releasing and supervising.

Today, there is general agreement that this vast expansion of the criminal justice system and the seven million people currently under U.S. correctional control did not occur by accident, but as the result of deliberate policy choices that impose intentionally punitive sentences that have increased both the numbers of people entering the system and how long they remain there.

The destructive effects of mass incarceration are visited disproportionately upon individuals and communities of color. Justice Reinvestment was conceived as part of the solution to this problem. Justice Reinvestment originated as an ambitious strategy to reduce reliance on incarceration and repair the harm to individuals and communities through reinvestment in neighborhoods with high concentrations of residents in the criminal justice system.

The initial purpose of Justice Reinvestment was to make state government accountable to impoverished communities – mostly (though not exclusively) black and Latino – where the burden of punishment and incarceration has been the heaviest. These already disadvantaged neighborhoods were being driven deeper into perpetual economic divestment, social isolation, political disenfranchisement and physical distress by the coercive, downward mobility caused by locally concentrated pockets of incarceration and the forced migration of residents to and from prison. The intent was to reduce corrections populations and budgets, thereby generating savings for the purpose of reinvesting in high incarceration communities to make them safer, stronger, more prosperous and equitable.

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The State of Georgia, led by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, has for the past several years demonstrated understanding and progress when it comes to criminal justice reform. With Georgia being the 10th largest state population-wise, but ranked fourth in the size of its prison population, it’s about time someone stepped up to the plate and…

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