How the Climate for Criminal Justice Reform Has Changed

How the Climate for Criminal Justice Reform Has Changed

“Tough on Crime” Approach Losing Support as Disparity in System Becomes Apparent

For most of the last 40 or so years, politicians (at least the most successful ones) have consistently held themselves out to be “tough on crime.” Republicans led the charge, beginning in the Nixon era, and Democrats followed suit. As a result, rates of incarceration in the United States have skyrocketed, from approximately 300,000 just four decades ago to more than 2.3 million people today. During that period, executions became more commonplace, states enacted mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, and the “three strikes” approach swept most of the country.

But now, legislators on both sides of the aisle are calling those policies into question. Led by Pat Nolan, a former California legislator who served a two-year sentence for racketeering, lawmakers have started to perceive “tough on crime” policies as overly bureaucratic and extremely expensive to taxpayers—experts put the price tag at $80 billion per year, with most of it going to private, for-profit prison corporations. Nolan also notes that it has become apparent that we are incarcerating a lot of people who simply don’t pose any danger to society.

In addition to the increase in sheer numbers of people incarcerated, it has become clear, according to study after study, that the “tough on crime” approach has had a substantially disproportionate impact on minorities and younger people. One study, not uncommon, found that African-Americans are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans. The shifting attitudes have already led to state reforms. California, facing severe overcrowding in its prisons, has taken the lead.

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