A Reform Roadmap for the Criminal Justice System

By Durocher, Christopher; Benson, Adrienne Lee | Judicature, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

A Reform Roadmap for the Criminal Justice System


Durocher, Christopher, Benson, Adrienne Lee, Judicature


In February of 2011, the bipartisan Smart on Crime Coalition, consisting of over three dozen of the nation's leading criminal justice policy organizations, issued Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Administration and Congress.1 The Coalition developed a comprehensive reform roadmap predicated on the conviction that the criminal justice system should be cost efficient, accurate, effective, proven, and, above all else, fair. In its review of virtually every major criminal justice issue - from the creation of new criminal laws to the reentry of ex-offenders into their communities, from helping to restore and empower victims to identifying ways to protect the rights of the accused - the report serves as both a source of information and a call to action for die Administration and Congress.

But perhaps just as importantly^ the nearly 100 recommendations contained in Smart on Crime promote policies that provide the leaders and practitioners in the trenches - the public defenders, prosecutors, judges, prison officials and lawmakers - with the tools to address specific problems in the face of the unique challenges presented during these difficult economic times. At the same time, these recommendations recognize the importance of accountability in the criminal justice system as the states and federal government seek to reduce spending. This article provides a few examples of the recommendations that balance the need to improve our justice system with the need to acknowledge the shrinking budgets that may hamper efforts to achieve these goals.

Cost efficient

Since the economic collapse in 2008, lawmakers in statehouses across the country have faced daunting budgetary challenges that show little sign of improving in the short term.3 At the same time, criminal justice expenditures are creating a huge burden on federal, state, and local governments. In 2008, federal, state, and local governments spent approximately $62 billion on corrections cost alone, and projections for the next five years predict the need for an additional $27 billion in operating and capital funds for prison expansion and operation.3 In 2011, the federal government is projected to spend $4.4 billion to supplement state and local spending on law enforcement, prosecution and other criminal justice functions.4

In the current budgetary climate, finding new money at the federal and state level for criminal justice reforms is nearly impossible. Consequently, Smart on Crime's recommendations largely focus on identifying cost-effective, evidence-based solutions that do not require substantial new expenditures to address the major crises facing the criminal justice system. At the federal level, cost-efficiencies can be achieved through reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing policies, expanding alternatives to incarceration, and reducing recidivism.5 Among one of the most promising cost-efficient reforms is providing the Department of Justice authority to hold states accountable for patterns and practices that deny the criminally accused their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The Department currently has the authority to hold states accountable for constitutional violations in their juvenile justice systems through a provision that allows it to sue for a "pattern or practice of conduct... by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States."6 Extending this authority beyond juvenile justice to include all criminal justice systems would empower the Department of Justice to rectify states' systemic violations of the Sixuh Amendment.

The Department of Justice's authority to examine states' indigent defense systems would come at a minimal cost. The Civil Rights Division has a total annual budget of about $145 million, only a small portion of which is used to enforce the current juvenile justice provision through its Special Litigation Section. …

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