We need criminal justice reform now more than ever. Despite strides made 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. That chilling case is not an isolated one, but rather a glaring reflection of the widespread abuse and dehumanization rampant in U.S. prisons and the American criminal justice system.
Despite this, examples of both red and blue states passing bipartisan legislation to reform the system mark a departure from exploiting fear towards embracing just policies and challenging historical taboos on a national scale.
There has been a noteworthy shift in political discourse surrounding the once-taboo phrase “criminal justice reform,“ which took a step backward during a pandemic-related crime spike. Public opinion on crime and criminal justice has fundamentally changed over the past few years and the majority now favor dealing with the roots of crime over strict sentencing by a 2 to 1 margin: 65 percent to 32 percent.
Even some self-identified Republicans, who traditionally favored punishment and enforcement, prefer a more reform-minded approach.
The way we talk about criminal justice reform is evolving. Now, rather than only discussing punishment as a response to individual crimes, communities are considering public health, mental health and the reality that harsh prison sentences alone will not make us safer.
With 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 advocacy organizations considered 2023 to be their most productive year in a long time, as 35 states passed legislation recognizing the inequities in our current system last year.
- In Pennsylvania, House Bill 900, known as the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, was passed unanimously. The bill, sponsored by State Reps. Morgan Cephas (D-Philadelphia) and Mike Jones (R-York) wrote the fair and humane treatment of women into Pennsylvania law, prohibiting shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant individuals and providing trauma-informed training for corrections officers who interact with pregnant people, among other measures.
- In Mississippi, Cynetra Freeman realized that many of the people who came through her reentry organization struggled with child support payments that ballooned during their time in prison. Being a justice-impacted person herself, she recognized the necessity of this change to the residual drains of incarceration. She worked with Republican legislators and Dream.Org, where I serve as the chief advocacy officer, for the passage of a bill to freeze those payments during incarceration. Instead of treating incarceration as voluntary unemployment, Mississippi judges must now consider incarceration when they make changes to child support payment plans.
- In Kentucky, a group of harm reduction advocates, predominantly from Appalachia, partnered with a Republican legislator to advance legislation decriminalizing fentanyl testing strips. Fentanyl is a leading cause of drug overdoses and is unlikely to be swept from the streets any time soon. Until this bill, testing strips were admissible as evidence of drug paraphernalia and a criminal offense. The life-saving measure passed unanimously, ensuring that those who carried them for the safety of themselves or others were not punished.
- In Washington, formerly incarcerated activist Eugene Youngblood partnered with local groups to encourage lawmakers to prevent juvenile records from being used as fodder for sentencing enhancements upon a further charge as an adult. The new bill prevents the perpetuation of biases against racial minorities and accounts for 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, policies across the criminal justice system remain inhumane. This underscores the urgency of seizing the moment. Dream.Org’s strategy has always focused on a strong long-game vision to end mass incarceration, realized 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 reform-friendly trajectory that resonates into the upcoming election year, offering a beacon of hope for a more just and equitable future. This moment emphasizes that progress made will not be progress kept without ongoing support from both parties.
In the upcoming year of elections and campaigns, we can’t lose sight of what we stand to win when we join forces.
Janos Marton is the chief advocacy officer at Dream.Org. Marton ran for Manhattan district attorney in 2020 on a platform of responsible decarceration and continues to champion policies that prioritize people over prisons.
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