“Criminal justice reform has gone from impossible to inevitable.”
So said Van Jones during his closing keynote at the recent Smart on Safety Summit, which celebrated the bold reforms that have been achieved in California thus far and charted out next steps to create more safety and more justice across the state.
America is experiencing a sea change in public opinion about our shamefully broken criminal justice system. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to demand action in the wake of unbearable and criminal police murders of young Black men. From the President to Republican Party leaders, elected officials are calling for a substantial change in direction. It is go-time for criminal justice reform.
Here in California, that change in direction is already underway. From Proposition 47 to Three Strikes reform and positive discipline that keeps kids in schools, California already has made tremendous strides toward moving away from the failed "punishment first" approach that has kept us shackled for much too long. Thousands across California are already benefitting from Prop 47, which downgraded drug possession and other nonviolent felonies to simple misdemeanors. Prop 47 is not just changing records; it is changing lives. This new era in criminal justice in California is only possible because of the leadership of advocates, organizers and pioneering policymakers. We are deeply grateful for the organizations and leaders who are working tirelessly to make this possible in California, including our wonderful partners in philanthropy.
While we celebrate these accomplishments, we know that much more remains to be done. At the Rosenberg Foundation, we believe criminal justice reform is one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time. The broken system perpetuates an ongoing cycle of crime, victimization and racial discrimination. Our prisons and jails continue to serve as the state’s de facto mental health system. Mass policing continues to wreak havoc on low-income communities, routinely violating Constitutional and basic human rights and all too often ending in fatality. Our young people continue to suffer in the juvenile justice system, with vast numbers locked behind bars, most for nonviolent offenses. And people re-entering their communities continue to face deep systemic barriers to jobs, housing and education. We must continue dismantling the barriers that exist for too many Californians, end mass incarceration and mass policing, and embrace and invest in prevention, treatment and other strategies that have been proven to keep our communities healthy and safe.
So, what’s next? Californians for Safety and Justice, a Rosenberg Foundation grantee and a leader in criminal justice reform, has laid out a five-point “blueprint for reform” to guide us in our next steps:
- Get smart on jails. Eliminate the cash bond system that keeps poor people incarcerated. More than 70 percent of local jail inmates in California have not been convicted of a crime. Instead, most are locked up simply because they can’t afford bail. Emptying jails of pre-trial detainees would result in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that could be redirected from local jail spending to meet urgent community needs.
- Get smart on sentencing. Roll back mandatory minimums, enhancements and extreme sentencing. For example, currently, if a person has one previous violent felony conviction, the sentence for any new felony, even if the second felony is non-serious, is twice the term otherwise required by law.
- Get smart on youth and adult sentencing. Stop the direct file of youth to the adult system, and overturn Proposition 21, which lets prosecutors instead of courts decide when children can be tried as adults. We need a massive redirection of resources focused on re-pathing the lives of children and young adults caught up in the justice system.
- Get smart on reentry. The movement to “Ban the Box” has had tremendous success in removing a barrier to employment for formerly incarcerated people. We must also fight to create concrete pipelines into living wage jobs and remove similar barriers to basic housing and quality education.
- Get smart on safety. California spends about $9 billion every year on state prisons alone. Instead, we should cut that budget and invest in community programs to help people in need, such as trauma recovery centers, mental health, drug treatment, jobs programs and schools.
Californians are with us. A survey conducted by The California Endowment shows almost two-thirds of respondents believe deeper criminal justice reforms are needed. When presented with a menu of options to improve community safety, only 22 percent think we should build more prisons and jails, while an overwhelming majority favored crime prevention and treatment.
We need all sectors working together to make this vision a reality. Windows of opportunity like this one open -- but they also close. Philanthropy can and should do much more to support the amazing organizers and advocates across the state and country fighting well organized opposition. Business and labor leaders can and should do much more to press for change and to open doors of opportunity for the millions who were caught up in the war on drugs and draconian sentencing policies. And perhaps most importantly, our elected leaders can and should find the courage to move in the changed direction that the public is demanding.
As the nation follows California’s leadership to create justice systems that are in fact just, we can’t afford to be complacent here at home. Now is the time for our state to adopt smarter and deeper reforms that will truly keep every community healthy and safe. With all hands on deck, we can end one of the most severe human rights crises of our time.