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Is there a need to reform our current criminal justice system or should it be left alone?  Should the prison population in federal, state and local jails be reduced to remedy unconstitutional conditions that may exist in these correctional facilities?   These are two questions that are currently being considered within the context of the current federal civil rights lawsuit, Schwarzenegger v. Plata.

This landmark case, which is an appeal of a previous lower court ruling, centers around the ruling that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) medical services violated constitutional guarantees (i.e., the Eighth Amendment) against cruel and unusual punishment and failed to provide basic medical, mental health and dental care for inmates in California.

The previous ruling also appointed an independent entity to run the state’s prison health-care system and ordered the release of 40,000 inmates to reduce overcrowding, which was deemed as the primary cause of the violations.  Governor Schwarzenegger, California Attorney General Jerry Brown and some commentators believe that this prison release order was not in the best interest of the public and would endanger lives; thus, the reason for the current appeal.

Currently, there are more than 2.3 million inmates in our country’s prisons and jails with an estimated 44 percent of all prisoners being African-American.  Multiple studies have shown that by 2011, prison expenditures will ultimately cost taxpayers almost $75 billion.  These objective statistics bespeak of the fact that our country has become addicted to incarceration and are holding more inmates than many prisons were originally designed for.  Relative to basic medical care, two Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have indicated that “at least 800,000 of these 2.3 million inmates suffer from a chronic condition that requires medical attention: diabetes, hypertension, a prior heart attack or a previously diagnosed cancer, among a few other diagnoses.”

Unfortunately, with an inmate dying every 6 to 7 days due to deficient medical attention, it has become very apparent that many of these prisoners with chronic conditions don’t receive necessary care when incarcerated.  Is it possible to reverse the alarming trends of overcrowding and lack of medical care throughout our nation’s prisons?  Absolutely!

Criminal justice reform is not a novel idea.  During the Clinton Administration, President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno consistently voiced measures to reform the criminal justice system, such as community-based policing, the Police Corps, education and job training.  Unfortunately, due to sensationalist crime coverage that was purposed to incite fear and conservative “law and order” proponents who believed that imprisoned offenders actually resulted in huge cost savings, the energy behind reform fell by the way side.

Now, with the current case involving Governor Schwarzenegger, reform has now come back to the forefront of substantive issues.  While Schwarzenegger, Brown and other antagonists believe that releasing certain inmates is not a wise mechanism for modifying our criminal justice system, I disagree and believe that it is a necessary starting point.  The following measures should be thoroughly analyzed and implemented to help establish a new direction for our nation’s criminal justice system:

1. Carefully release non-violent offenders. Well-documented evidence suggests that nearly one million of those incarcerated in federal, state and local jails are nonviolent drug and chronic traffic offenders- most of whom are African-Americans.  In lieu of having these non-violent offenders contribute to prison crowding, it may prove beneficial to carefully divert such low-risk prisoners to community-based programs or other alternative programs such as drug rehabilitation, electronic monitoring, educational sentencing and boot camps.   This would likely make it less difficult to find space for violent offenders, who are far more deserving of incarceration.

2. Congress should seriously consider criminal justice reform. Historically, Congress has been reluctant to seriously consider criminal justice reform.  Currently, both chambers and sides of the aisle agree, for the most part, that our criminal justice system needs to move in a new direction.  The House recently passed the National Criminal Justice Commission Act that would establish a bipartisan commission to review the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the Act is still awaiting Senate approval; thus, there has been little action since the passage of this Act.  Upon approval by both chambers of Congress, it would prove beneficial if the panel can perform a thorough analysis and publish a report of negative findings and best practices that can be acted upon in the form of reformed public policy that will reduce overcrowding, reduce racial disparity, ensure proper medical care and help taxpayers save money.

3. More resources should be allocated for reentry programs. A primary way to help ensure that released offenders do not become habitual criminals and to assist in successful reintegration into communities is via reentry programs.  Oftentimes, these programs that have helped myriad ex-offenders through vocational training, employment assistance and other initiatives struggle with resources.  More grants, money and manpower would prove beneficial in helping these programs achieve goals that benefit society as a whole.

4. Require caps on inmate population. In California, there are over 160,000 adult inmates in prison, although the system is designed to hold only about 84,000 inmates.  And, there a plethora of states who are dealing with the same dilemma.  Hence, it would prove beneficial if caps relative to the design capacity of prisons can be established.  Again, the adoption of this measure would help prisons to focus on alternative sentences for certain offenders that will have overall beneficial implications.

After many years of litigation and court orders, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling that will side with the lower court’s decision that our criminal justice system needs a facelift.  Similar to the historic crack cocaine legislation passed by Congress to reduce inherent racial injustices, this ruling would similarly prove very beneficial to the African-American community.  After the expected ruling, it is imperative that best practices such as the above-mentioned recommendations are implemented.

Anthony Jerrod is a speaker, public policy expert and author of Carnal Striving Spiritual.

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