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Three Key Criminal Justice Updates from the Three Branches of the Federal Government

Three Key Criminal Justice Updates from the Three Branches of the Federal Government

Since the start of the 115th Congress and the presidential inauguration, we have seen messages coming from the White House, the legislative branch and the Supreme Court that give a mixed impression of the future of criminal justice reform. These range from executive orders that could set the stage for tough on crime policies to continued calls for sentencing reform and a growing admission of the corrupting role racial bias plays in our criminal justice system.

Early in February, the Trump administration issued three executive orders regarding crime in the United States. None of the orders include policy changes: one establishes a “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety,” another directs the Attorney General to find ways to protect police officers from violent crimes and the third directs government officials to strengthen the interagency Threat Mitigation Working Group in its mission to prosecute international drug cartels. While it is important that we continue to promote public safety and reduce crime rates, the executive orders fail to address issues of overcriminalization, racial bias and mass incarceration. In fact, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already taken actions that could exacerbate these issues by instructing federal prosecutors to intensify their focus on drug crimes. This shift, while ostensibly geared towards reducing violent crime, could push more non-violent offenders into prison under harsh sentences.

More recently, the Supreme Court handed down a victory for those seeking to limit racial bias in jury proceedings. On Monday, March 6, the Court ruled in Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado that in some cases, contents of jury deliberations could be revealed if a juror makes racially-biased statements. According to the 5-3 decision, the right to a fair trial outweighs the principle that jury deliberations be kept secret and a juror who displays racial bias could interfere with that right. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy called racial bias “a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.”

Finally, throughout the first few months of the 115th Congress, legislative leaders have sought to build on the progress made towards criminal justice reform in the last Congress. Early on in 2017, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin stated their desire to reintroduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences, bolster anti-recidivism programs and make much-needed changes to the juvenile justice system. Soon after, Senators Chris Coons and Thom Tillis wrote an op-ed calling for bipartisan criminal justice reform, which has also seen support from leaders in the law enforcement community.

In their op-ed, Senators Tillis and Coons recalled the words of Leviticus 19:15: “Do not commit corruption in justice.” This text instructs us, as Reform Jews, to work for a society that encourages public safety through just means by reducing racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Take action now: urge your members of Congress to reintroduce bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus

Published: 3/17/2017