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Analysis

Criminal Justice Reform Is More than Fixing Sentencing

Experts explain how we got here and solutions that will benefit everyone.

April 5, 2022

A single crim­inal convic­tion bars a person for life from call­ing a bingo game in New York State. Before you chuckle at this gratu­it­ous prohib­i­tion, take a second to appre­ci­ate the wider context: this is one of 27,000 (!) rules nation­wide barring people with crim­inal records from obtain­ing a profes­sional license. Convic­tion of a crime excludes people from hold­ing jobs from real estate appraiser to massage ther­ap­ist.

In our work to end mass incar­cer­a­tion, the Bren­nan Center has focused on the length of prison sentences. As our stud­ies have shown, 39 percent of those in prison are there without a current public safety rationale. But the reach of our crim­inal justice system — its inef­fi­cien­cies and its unfair­ness — extends far beyond the time an indi­vidual is incar­cer­ated.

We all have a stake, for example, in making sure that a person leav­ing prison can rein­teg­rate into soci­ety. Instead, we throw up barri­ers. Getting a job, even one that does not require a profes­sional license, becomes extremely chal­len­ging. Stud­ies show that a crim­inal convic­tion reduces the like­li­hood of getting a job call­back by 50 percent for a white applic­ant and nearly two-thirds for a black applic­ant. These long odds have seri­ous consequences. Find­ing work is the keystone to getting hous­ing, becom­ing a contrib­ut­ing family member, and living an inde­pend­ent life.

Since many people are convicted of crimes when young, the negat­ive effects rever­ber­ate for decades. The annual reduc­tion in income that accom­pan­ies a crim­inal convic­tion rises from $7,000 initially to over $20,000 later in life.

Today crime is rising. Public safety must be a para­mount goal. When viol­ence cascades, it affects and hurts poor and margin­al­ized communit­ies most. As Alvin Bragg, the new Manhat­tan district attor­ney, put it so well, “The two goals of justice and safety are not opposed to each other. They are inex­tric­ably linked.” 

Progress toward crim­inal justice reform was made possible, in part, by the fact that crime rates were fall­ing for decades. Now, rising crime again creates the condi­tions where demagogic polit­ics and unwise policies can recur — with poten­tially crush­ing social, economic, and racial consequences. So we need to think anew, to make sure that the reac­tion to rising crime does not provoke a policy response that produces neither safety nor fair­ness.  

A year ago, the Bren­nan Center set out to broaden the national discus­sion about crim­inal justice reform. Since then, through our Punit­ive Excess series, we have published 25 essays by diverse authors ranging from schol­ars to formerly incar­cer­ated people. The ill-considered collat­eral consequences of crim­inal convic­tion is just one of many topics, which also include perverse finan­cial incent­ives in the system, inhu­mane prison condi­tions, racism, the treat­ment of child offend­ers, and more. 

It is a trove of analysis and schol­ar­ship that deserves your atten­tion. Today we published the conclud­ing essay, which surveys the damage from heavy-handed tactics and offers altern­at­ives that empower communit­ies. We also released a new video explor­ing the prob­lems caused by excess­ive punish­ment. I hope you will read, view, and share widely.