The criminal justice system has countless problems that ultimately erode public safety. However, there are several opportunities for reform that will make our communities safer, alleviate cyclical poverty, and protect marginalized Californians.
Safety & 2nd Chances
Safety and justice go hand in hand—but a criminal justice system that targets the already-marginalized and leads to mass incarceration leaves us less safe and healthy as a society.
The justice system has arguably become California’s greatest driver of poverty and inequality, impacting both those who become justice-involved and the generations that follow them.
A fairer justice system that holds people accountable while prioritizing rehabilitation will make our communities safer and help break the cycle that keeps people trapped in poverty.
Becoming involved in the justice system pushes individuals who are already poor into even deeper poverty. Those with records are blocked from accessing jobs and housing, and the fines and fees imposed through the justice system undermine one’s financial stability.
Being born into poverty makes one more likely to become justice-involved. Because of barriers to economic opportunity and law enforcement practices that target poor neighborhoods and people, a boy born into a family with an income in the bottom 10 percent is approximately 20 times more likely to be incarcerated as an adult than a boy born into the top 10 percent.
The criminal justice system is also a leading source of racial inequality. Black men and women make up more than one-quarter of all incarcerated adults in California state prisons—over four times their share of the overall state population. Similarly, American Indian men and women and Latino men are heavily overrepresented in California state prisons. The biases that lead to these disparate outcomes run deep, appearing at the point of arrest, sentencing, and conviction.
Decriminalizing Poverty and Mental Illness
The justice system has often criminalized the everyday activities of those who live in poverty, lack stable housing, or struggle with mental health issues. The actions being criminalized are often unavoidable and only leave those being punished even more vulnerable.
Decriminalizing homelessness: People experiencing homelessness are often charged with crimes that are impossible to avoid when one lacks stable housing (e.g., public camping, loitering, etc.). To fix this, we need to change laws and enforcement policies, establish legal protections for those experiencing homelessness, and address our housing crisis.
Decriminalizing mental illness: Similarly, people with mental health challenges or untreated substance addiction are at risk of being punished for crimes like disorderly conduct. The criminalization of mental health challenges only decreases the likelihood of effective treatment and increases the chances of future justice system involvement. Going down this path has led to jails and prisons becoming de facto mental health hospitals. To reverse this, we will need sufficient investments in mental health care and a removal of the justice system from mental health care interventions.
Eliminating Racial Disparities
People of color are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system, and many of the tactics employed by the system to reduce crime—from racial profiling to disparate sentencing outcomes—actively harm Black and Brown people and communities and make our society less safe as a whole.
Alternatives to policing: There is evidence that police are less effective in reducing crime than strategies like providing jobs for youth and hiring outreach workers. Investing in these types of strategies will reduce the interactions with law enforcement that too often lead to people and communities of color experiencing disproportionate harm.
Sentencing reform: California has adopted sentencing reforms that have reduced penalties for many less serious crimes and reduced the state’s prison incarceration rates. But moving forward, the state should address problems with longer sentences, which are disproportionately applied to Black people. We can eliminate long sentences without any meaningful risk because older people are much less likely to reoffend. Other reforms could include changes to the parole process, ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, and allowing those who have been incarcerated over 15 years to request resentencing.
Creating a Meaningful Second Chance
The presence of a criminal record continues to punish people even after they have completed their sentence by blocking access to jobs, housing, and other opportunities. Our justice system, and the poverty it perpetuates, will never be fixed if we cannot provide a meaningful second chance for those who have paid their debt to society.
Re-entry programs: We know what types of re-entry programs are best at setting people up for success after leaving prison. They include high-quality education opportunities during incarceration, automatic enrollment in safety net programs (like Medi-Cal, CalFresh, CalWORKs), automatic enrollment in affordable housing programs once released, and help with job training and job searching. The more universal these practices are, the more successful people will be after reentering society.
Removing barriers to employment and housing: Despite having taken some positive steps to expunge criminal records, California still has a ways to go to ensure formerly incarcerated people are not disqualified from getting a job or finding a place to live. The state should make more people eligible for expungement and make it harder for more employers and landlords to consider one’s criminal record when applying for a job or housing.
Removing fines: The fines and fees imposed on formerly incarcerated people burdens them with debt they often have no realistic chance of paying off. California has established debt forgiveness and ability-to-pay programs, along with eliminating certain fees for those who interact with the justice system. Moving forward, the state should eliminate all remaining criminal justice fees and end the practice of intercepting CTC and EITC payments to repay child support or other debts to the government owed by low-income individuals.
While our criminal justice system has a responsibility to keep us safe and hold people accountable, it also must put people on a path to success and not exacerbate harm.
Decades of failed “tough on crime” policies have made our communities less safe and hurt those already marginalized. Until we start emphasizing justice in our criminal justice system, we will continue to make the same mistakes that have reinforced poverty and ultimately failed to reduce crime.
Read our paper with the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality!
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