Criminal Justice

3 criminal justice trends you should care about

Reducing mass incarceration and reforming the nation’s criminal justice system are now mainstream news, yet most reporting focuses on the deleterious effects of racial and economic inequities on communities of color, incarcerated people, and individuals on parole or probation.

There is, however, cause for optimism as demonstrated in the following areas: racial disparities, state laws, and prosecution practices.

  1. Racial disparities have declined across prison, jail and parole populations

“From 2000 to 2016, racial and ethnic disparities declined across prison, jail, probation, and parole populations in the United States.” (Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex, published by Committee on Criminal Justice, December 2019)

  • The black-white state imprisonment disparity fell from 8.3-to-1 in 2000 to 5.1-to-1 in 2016.
  • Black-white drug imprisonment fell across all major crime categories (rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault). The largest drop was for drug offenses. In 2000, black people were imprisoned for drug crimes at 15 times the rate of whites. By 2016, that ratio was just under 5-to-1.
  • Among women, the black-white disparity in imprisonment fell from 6-to-1 to 2-to-1, a sharper decrease than the decline for men. There is an “increase in imprisonment rate for white women for violent, property, and drug crimes and a decrease in the imprisonment of black women for drug crimes.”
  • Fewer blacks, more whites in state prisons. The number of black men in state prisons declined by more than 48,000 and the number of white men increased by 59,000.
  • The number of black women in state prison fell by more than 12,000 and the number of white women increased by nearly 25,000.

Good news: changes in state laws addressed how low-level drug offenses are treated. (e.g. In 2009, NYS reformed Rockefeller Drug laws which had imposed harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses; CA re-classified certain low-level property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.)

Bad news: Blacks still receive longer sentences which offsets benefits of their reduced numbers in state prison.

The report did not address in depth the possible causes for the declines or increases racial disparities and stressed the need for further research

2.  State legislatures are making strides in criminal justice reform

Source: “From Marijuana to Death Penalty States Led the Way in 2019” (by Daniel Nichanian, The Appeal, December 20, 2019)

The Appeal, a policy and media organization, reported on reforms in death penalty, parole and early release, youth justice, drug policy, prison conditions, prison gerrymandering, and rights restoration and felony disenfranchisement, immigration and local law enforcement, and past records.

I chose four areas for this article.

Death penalty: Five states restricted, halted or repealed the death penalty over a 10-month period. (e.g. Washington Supreme Court abolished the death penalty and converted the sentences of people on death row. In March, CA governor Gavin Newson, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions.

Parole and early release: To end what some call, “death by incarceration,” 22 states abolished juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

Youth Justice: In OR, a wide range of laws repealed all requirements that some minors be prosecuted as adults; MI raised age raised age that some teenagers can be in youth system by one year to 18.

Prison Gerrymandering: NV and Washington adopted laws to end prison gerrymandering which counts incarcerated people at their prison’s location rather than at their last residence. The practice inflates the power of predominantly white and rural areas where prisons are often located.

3.   Activists continue to urge prosecutors to re-think when to charge or not charge, when to divert, when to offer a plea.

  • Vera Institute’s “Reshaping Prosecution” project is “…help (s) reform-minded prosecutors rethink their role in delivering justice and pursuing public safety by …” partnering with prosecutors “…to develop strategies for prosecutors to reduce incarceration and promote racial equity in their work, and increase the public’s confidence in their office.”

“…a new generation of prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Orlando, Contra Costa, Denver, St. Louis… are part of a small but growing cadre who understand…that “tough on crime” does not equal public safety. (Vera Institute)

  • Under their Prosecution and Racial Justice Program, they’ve published, “Unlocking the Black Box,” …a guide for interested community members and prosecutors to better understand what prosecutors can do to promote equal justice.”


There is much, much more to accomplish: improve prison conditions, develop community alternatives to incarceration, eliminate cash bail, end felony disenfranchisement, reduce racial disparities, and reduce recidivism.

As we move into a new decade, let’s keep up the momentum for criminal justice reform.

According to The Appeal, “Criminal justice reform remains an uneven patchwork. States that make bold moves on one issue can be harshly punitive on others.”





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