The Fragility of Criminal Justice Reform

By Mauer, Marc | Social Justice, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Fragility of Criminal Justice Reform


Mauer, Marc, Social Justice


Edging Toward Reform

A criminal justice reformer assessing the political scene in the spring of 1993 would have been cautiously optimistic about the prospects for change. After 20 years of steadily increasing prison populations, some signs of a shift toward a more rational policy direction had finally appeared. The incoming Clinton administration, almost by fluke, contributed to this development. Clinton's new Attorney General, Janet Reno, his third choice for the position, quickly staked out a position on crime control that was startling in its break with the past. Reno's immediate predecessor, William Barr, had used his office as a platform for his "more prisons or more crime" ideology. Reno, though, immediately began delivering high profile talks around the country constantly preaching the message that "prenatal care is more important than prisons" in controlling crime. Whether or not this theme was developed in consultation with the White House (there are few indications that it was), the message and the messenger rapidly became very popular. Reno was portrayed as an honest, down-to-earth leader who cared about people. She was featured on the cover of Time magazine and quickly became one of the most popular figures in the administration. Rejecting conventional "political wisdom" on crime, Reno pursued her strong pro-prevention message. Not only was she not categorized as "soft on crime," but the general public response to her message was very supportive.

Janet Reno was far from the only reason for optimism in the minds of reformers. While public support for harsher sentencing policies was still quite prevalent, a cross-section of criminal justice professionals at all levels was seen challenging the wisdom of continuing to build prisons as a solution to crime. "We can't build our way out of the prison overcrowding crisis," once the exclusive call of reformers, had become standard fare in the speeches of many corrections officials and state legislators. Over 600 criminal justice and elected officials nationally had come together to support the newly formed Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy in its "Call for a Rational Debate on Crime and Punishment" (Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy, 1992).

At the policy level, significant opposition was growing to mandatory sentencing, one of the most pernicious developments of the 1980s. Federal judges, a majority of whom were Republican appointees, became almost unanimous in their descriptions of the injustices caused by these policies and their calls for repeal. Government studies documented the disparities and injustices caused by mandatory sentencing and political leaders as divergent as Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch began speaking out on the need for reconsideration.

The early 1990s also witnessed growing support for a variety of alternatives to incarceration. While many of these programs may have had little impact on prison populations, they nevertheless helped to create a more receptive climate for consideration of a range of sentencing options other than incarceration.

Finally, the period was also one in which growing attention was directed toward the dramatic racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Several studies documenting the high rate of criminal justice control for young African-American males gained national attention. Bar groups, including the American Bar Association and a number of state court systems, established commissions to examine the causes and remedies for racism within the justice system. Congressional hearings on the issue further served to document the problem and raise the level of public attention.

So, while reformers in 1993 were not quite ready to declare victory, they were nevertheless of a belief that the two-decade-long trend toward greater imprisonment might have finally reached its peak. Less than a year later, that optimistic scenario had been transformed into a repressive criminal justice climate rivalling any time during the preceding 20 years.

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