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States are Leading the Way on Criminal Justice Reform

States are Leading the Way on Criminal Justice Reform

Statue of Justice, with law books in the background

As the U.S. Congress slowly makes progress toward reforming the federal criminal justice system, a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that states are leading the way in addressing over-criminalization, mass incarceration and the collateral consequences of interacting with the criminal justice system.

According to the report, 46 states passed more than 200 bills between 2014 and 2015 to reform at least one aspect of the criminal justice system. Those reforms covered a wide range of areas, from changing sentencing laws in order to reduce prison populations and placing new limits on the use of solitary confinement, to breaking down reentry barriers and creating new opportunities for people who were formerly incarcerated.

This trend of state-level criminal justice reform demonstrates a growing consensus around the country and across ideological lines that our criminal justice system is broken. Decades of tough-on-crime policies that favored incarceration over rehabilitation are now starting to give way to smart-on-crime approaches that more effectively and more humanely strike a balance between punishment and mercy.

The work at the state-level to reform criminal justice practices is particularly important given that mass incarceration is primarily a state and local problem. Of the more than 2.3 million incarcerated people in this country, almost two million are held in local and state jails and prisons.

Jewish tradition instructs us to support efforts to make our criminal justice system more fair and just. In Ecclesiastes we are told: “There is none on earth so righteous as to only do good and never sin” (7:20). Recognizing that all people are fallible, we also believe that people are worth more than their biggest mistake and that they deserve to be granted second chances. Harsh sentencing laws for low-level, nonviolent offenses, as well as structural barriers to reentry, undermine that spirit by preventing millions of Americans from overcoming their past wrongdoings and becoming successful and productive members of society.

Looking ahead, states will likely remain the laboratories for innovative and far-reaching criminal justice reform measures. In California, for example, voters are expected to decide on a wide-reaching criminal justice reform ballot referendum in November that would allow people serving time for nonviolent felony convictions to receive early release on parole. Reform California – the Reform synagogues’ statewide social justice campaign in California –- will focus its efforts in the coming months on passing this measure. Thus, even while we in the Reform Movement may focus much of our energy on advancing criminal justice reform at the federal level, we should also remain aware of and do what we can to support campaigns and policies to tackle mass incarceration at the state and local levels.

Click here to read the Vera Institute of Justice report on state-level criminal justice reform.

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters

Published: 6/13/2016