In the Congress, at the White House, and the state governments of our nation, we are seriously considering the best approaches to reforming a criminal justice system that most Americans –Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike—would agree imprisons too many Americans for too long at too great a cost.
As I write, there are 2.2 million Americans (disproportionately Black and Latino) behind bars. Eventually, moreover, most of these individuals will be released—9,000 each year onto the streets of Baltimore and more than 600,000 nationally.
Increasingly, it is clear that we must shift toward more rational, evidence-based policies that work. In both Washington and Annapolis, Democrats and Republicans alike must refocus our thinking from a largely emotional “tough on crime” perspective to evidence-based policies that can better deter criminal activity.
As President Obama observed when he spoke to our public safety policies at Rutgers University in November:
“The goal is to prevent crime. The goal is to make sure that folks are fairly punished when they break the law. But the ultimate goal is to make sure that folks are law-abiding, self-sufficient, good citizens. Everything we do should be designed towards that goal—and if we’re doing a good job there, then crime will go down and it will stay down.”
Insightfully, the President stressed that each person’s ability to be self-sufficient in a law-abiding way is a core pillar of public safety. Expanded educational and economic opportunity will make us not only more prosperous but also safer as a society.
We also must rationalize what happens when someone is charged with a criminal offense. There should be a significant difference in the law’s response when someone is charged with a violent crime than there is when the offense, although serious, does not physically harm another human being.
Fortunately, the President’s emphasis upon “smart justice” reflects this distinction — a viewpoint that is shared by many Democrats and Republicans in the Congress.
For example, substantial legislative activity is being focused upon proposals to reform mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders that, increasingly, are perceived as being unfair, overly expensive and unproductive.
In addition to proposals to provide more oversight in the use of force by our police, we also are witnessing significant interest in reforming what happens when people are sentenced to the cell blocks of our nation.
We are asking hard questions about whether they actually are being rehabilitated, their mental health issues addressed, and their employment skills strengthened.
These reform proposals are essential elements of smarter justice.
Assuring successful “re-entry” into society by those who have completed their sentences is one of the most difficult public safety — and economic — challenges that we face. Yet, we also know that everyone benefits when those who have been incarcerated can achieve the skills that will encourage their employment in lawful and productive jobs.
This is where our employers have a critical role to play. All too often, a criminal record in this country can be like a life sentence. It can affect finding a job, securing housing, getting around town, and even casting a vote.
Last year, I wrote the President to urge him to bring fair chance hiring policies to the federal government, and he has since charged his administration with working to do just that. I also took up the cause myself, and introduced legislation entitled the Fair Chance Act .
Our bipartisan, bicameral proposal would build on successful “ban-the-box” policies at the state and local levels by prohibiting the federal government from asking about criminal histories until the end of the hiring process.
I also am a proud original cosponsor of the Sensenbrenner-Davis Second Chance Reauthorization Act , important, bipartisan legislation that would continue federal support for local re-entry initiatives like the Center for Urban Families.
The political challenges remain, but I am optimistic. From the perspective of both our safety and our prosperity, a reformed justice system that is smart, as well as fair, is the key.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.