Good News For Criminal Justice Reform

The momentum to reform the criminal justice system continues to build this week.

Momentum To Reform The Criminal Justice System Continues To Build

Signs are pointing in the right direction this week towards further action on criminal justice reform. Today, President Obama visited Camden, New Jersey to announce new reforms in the federal government’s role in the nation’s policing. Effective immediately, the administration will no longer supply certain kinds of military equipment to local police forces, such as “tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition of .50-caliber or higher and some types of camouflage.”

In addition, the administration will phase in restrictions to the other types of military equipment, such as tactical vehicles and riot equipment, in order to establish further accountability surrounding their use. Following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, many Americans were shocked and outraged by the level of militarization on display by the local police department, and these announced regulations are a step towards bringing more police officers out of the barracks and into their communities.

While the President’s new regulations on police militarization are important, just as important is recognizing Camden’s success in reforming its police department to better meet the needs of the community. After the city police department was hit by layoffs and a rash of homicides, the community reorganized the city police, transforming it into a county force and giving it a new founding principle: community policing. Testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said that community policing “starts on the street, with respectful interaction between a police officer and a local resident” that “need not be related to a criminal matter.” In the Task Force’s new report, released in tandem with the President’s announcements on police militarization, the authors conclude that “community policing cannot be a program, unit, strategy or tactic. It must be the core principle that lies at the foundation of a police department’s culture.”

Since 2012, when Camden County’s police force reorganized, crime has dropped steeply, with homicides falling by 40 percent. And in another hopeful sign, middle and high school students reported feeling safer in their communities. Camden’s reforms have not been perfect–for example, civil liberties groups and activists have protested the increased use of citations for low-level infractions. However, these are hopeful steps from a city where two in five residents live below the poverty line and they deserve recognition.

Camden and the Obama administration are moving forward with criminal justice reform, but so are other parts of the country.

  • Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) will lay out his reform plans after being stymied by his state’s legislature in the past year.
  • Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) will likely sign a bill this week reforming his state’s prison system, cutting the number of Alabamians in prison by nearly 20 percent.
  • Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has become more amenable to reform efforts and is open to reforming some mandatory minimum laws, possibly removing a major potential roadblock to Congress starting the hard work of sentencing reform.

The Center for American Progress is doing its part too. Today, CAP and FreedomWorks teamed up to host a daylong in-depth conversation about the way the media covers criminal justice reform. The groups are part of the bipartisan organization called Coalition for Public Safety, which has been featured by The New York Times and The Daily Show. The conversation between a variety of reporters, bloggers, and policy and communications experts was extremely successful, where participants from the left and the right found more common ground than they expected going in.

BOTTOM LINE: While seeing community after community in anguish in the past year has been painful for the whole country, the momentum for real reforms of our criminal justice system is building. Leaders from different walks of life, political parties, and levels of government are having a dialogue, finding common ground, and seeing results. This is what the path to reform looks like.

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