by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor
In response to what proponents of reform consider the catastrophic effects of mass incarceration and over-criminalization, Mayor Sly James of Kansas City and Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver are urging lawmakers to take immediate Congressional action for criminal justice reform.
Today, one in three Americans has a criminal record. Our nation spends $80 billion a year on incarceration. Due to the financial burden our prison system has become, many politicians on both sides of the aisle now appear to support criminal justice reform.
Several bills aimed to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing and reduce recidivism rates are now before lawmakers.
On Thursday, Kansas City Mayor Sly James encouraged Congress to take immediate action to end mass incarceration. Last year, mass incarceration set Missouri taxpayers back $725 million. The Missouri Department of Corrections spent $149 million more in 2015 than in 2005.
It costs $57.42 per day to house each offender in the state of Missouri.
These statistics alone appear to reveal an urgency for criminal justice reform.
“Here in Kansas City we have gone through some very interesting times with regards to our court system,” said James. “The incident in Ferguson has led to a lot of legislative scrutiny on what to do about what goes on in cities like Ferguson, that have felt for quite some time that there is a disproportionate impact on people of color as it relates to the criminal justice system.”
To avert further apparent injustices at the municipal court level, the legislature and the Missouri Supreme Court have created a roadmap for reform. Although municipal courts handle minor infractions, impropriety in handling municipal cases has caused constitutional rights violations and deliberate discrimination, according to a charge given by the Supreme Court of Missouri.
“There are some lessons we have learned as we looked at the municipal courts across the state,” said James. “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work.”
As for circuit courts, James said it is a better practice to individualize our system of justice to meet the needs of the public.
“We have made great use of specialty courts, including Domestic Violence Court, where people who are engaged in domestic violence are not just treated like any other crime. They receive special attention, they have access to special services and they are also specially scrutinized and supervised in a way that will allow them to be rehabilitated to avoid these problems in the future.”
Kansas City also has a Drug Rehab court, where individuals facing multiple drug convictions can get treatment to get those issues resolved as opposed to entering prison.
Another example of individualized adjudication is Veterans Court, also known as Stand-down. In addition to providing free legal services to veterans charged with low level crimes, it connects homeless veterans with special services, job training, medical care, shelter and food.
“Basically, it enables them to come out of the shadows so they are not afraid of being arrested if they have done something wrong,” said James.
“We believe that the best way to reform the criminal justice system is to make sure we have fewer and fewer people in it in the first place,” said James. “And we can do that by deferring them to specialty courts that address their particular crimes and needs.”
James has also collaborated with the Kansas City Missouri Police Department, Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, U.S Attorney's Office and Missouri's Office of Probation and Parole to launch Kansas City Nova, a community based multi-dimensional approach to crime reduction. It focuses direct attention to reducing violent crimes in the inner city.
Mass incarceration has plagued a number of communities and has served as the root cause of a lifetime of barriers for those who become incarcerated.
In Missouri, there are 29,297 males incarcerated in 18 adult correctional institutions and 3,244 females incarcerated in two adult correctional institutions. The combined prison population in Missouri is larger than the population of Liberty, the 21st largest city in Missouri.
Additionally, there are 45,830 people on probation and 16,599 people on parole in Missouri.
After the inmate pays his debt to society, many formerly incarcerated individuals struggle to acquire housing, employment and loans for education. Frequently they are automatically disregarded from consideration due to their criminal history.
Proponents of reform say this deliberate discrimination even occurs against nonviolent offenders and low-level drug crimes that occurred in their teen years and 20s.
Last year, the state unemployment rate for those on parole was 44 percent. Comparatively, the Missouri unemployment rate is 4.2 percent.
The right to vote has also been stripped from 5.8 million formerly incarcerated individuals due to a felony conviction.
Disenfranchisement laws bar 106,024 Caucasians and 35,172 African Americans from voting in Missouri.
The effects also extend to children. Today, one in every two children has a parent with a criminal record. Subsequently, these families struggle disproportionately with poverty and despair.
Many lawmakers now recognize that rising incarceration rates are a direct outcome of the get-tough-on-crime initiatives, which generated mandatory sentencing guidelines and stricter enforcement of the nation's drug laws.
Congress is now in a position to take action on several bills, including the recidivism reduction act and the sentencing reform and corrections act of 2015, that would undue these initiatives.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a proponent for criminal justice reform, said he has waited with great anticipation to formally endorse legislation in both chambers.
“I really believe that Congress has a real opportunity and can take very important steps to fix the nation's broken criminal justice system. An overhaul that is quite frankly long overdue,” Hancock said last week.
Hancock said mass incarceration continues to drive racial inequality and poverty, especially in African-Americans and minority communities.
Statistics compiled by the Sentencing Project reveal that minorities make up 60 percent of the prison population, even though African Americans make up 12 percent of the general population.
African Americans are two times more likely to be arrested than Caucasians, he said.
To reverse the effects of over-criminalization on a local and state level, Hancock has created a comprehensive plan to reform the Denver Sheriff's Department. Hancock has identified specific steps and enacted new policies to change the way the sheriff's office operates, including use of force, jail operations and internal affairs.
“America can no longer afford to be over-incarcerating its population,” said Hancock. “It is a very expensive industry and impactful practice on the communities that are being overly incarcerated and one of which continues to set us back.”
Todd Cox, director of criminal justice policy for the Center for American Progress and political appointee at the Department of Corrections, also said he recognizes the impact overzealous criminal justice initiatives have had on American families.
“We know that the poverty rate would have dropped 20 percent between 1980 and 2000, but for mass incarceration” it did not, said Cox.
Proponents of reform say lawmakers can end these unnecessarily harsh penalties inflicted by failed policies, including the tough-on-crime initiatives, by passing this new legislation.
“The bill takes important steps to redirect and limit mandatory minimum sentencing so that we ensure that folks who don't belong in prison are redirected appropriately.”
The bill also would seal juvenile records and allow offenders to challenge the accuracy of federal criminal records, “addressing the well documented problems of the era-ridden criminal record databases,” said Cox.
The Senate is also poised to enact a bipartisan bill dubbed “ban the box.” The legislation would allow formerly incarcerated individuals a chance to compete for federal jobs without dealing with the bias that a criminal record carries in the initial application process.
“The catastrophic impacts of our criminal justice system and the policies that were adopted over the past four decades obviously have had huge impacts in our society and Congress should see this pressing opportunity in this bipartisan effort to make meaningful policy changes that would reform our justice system and expand opportunities for everyone,” said Cox.