New Brennan Center Book: Candidates, Lawmakers, and Activists Offer Bold Solutions to End Mass Incarceration

May 16, 2019

Media Contact: Rebecca Autrey, Rebecca.Autrey@nyu.edu, 646-292-8316

New York, NY – Presidential candidates, lawmakers, and civil rights leaders outline their path forward for criminal justice reform ahead of the 2020 election in a new book of essays published by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders includes essays from Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alicia Garza, Kirsten Gillibrand, Vanita Gupta, Kamala Harris, Sherrilyn Ifill, Van Jones, Amy Klobuchar, Jared Kushner, Beto O’Rourke, Rashad Robinson, Topeka Sam, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and more. Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Brennan Center President Michael Waldman penned forewords to the volume.

“The transformative solutions offered in this book make it clear that what’s possible in criminal justice reform has shifted massively in just a few years,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Once this was a wedge issue. Now it’s an area of rare agreement. There’s widespread consensus that bold changes are needed to end mass incarceration, and to tackle what is the country’s modern-day civil rights crisis. These ideas will be at the forefront of debate in the 2020 election.”

In the essays, authors detail specific policies they support to help lower the number of people in jail or prison. These go beyond changes in the FIRST STEP Act, a criminal justice reform bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last year. Proposals include:

  • Eliminating imprisonment entirely for lower-level offenses
  • Abolishing cash bail
  • Ending the federal prohibition on marijuana
  • Reversing federal funding streams to reward states that lower prison rates and keep crime rates low
  • Encouraging fair hiring practices for formerly incarcerated individuals
  • Reforming prosecutorial practices and public defense

Click here to read the full book. And click here to read this press release online, including select quotes from each essay.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Rebecca Autrey at Rebecca.Autrey@nyu.edu or 646-292-8316.

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Brennan Center President Michael Waldman sets the stage in his foreword. Noting recent progress with the FIRST STEP Act, he says that now is the time for “stronger, more comprehensive, and more far-reaching solutions” from leaders.  

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, writes in a foreword that “our so-called justice system has often functioned as a purveyor of mass injustice by consistently perpetuating racial inequities and corroding the civil liberties of communities of color.” Comprehensive and widespread change “is required to create the climate of trust that is needed for both the community and police officers to be safe.”

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New Jersey Senator Cory Booker says that the recently-passed federal FIRST STEP prison reform bill is just a starting point for change. Booker discusses legislation he’s introduced to “make far-reaching reforms to police encounters, sentencing, prison conditions, and reentry efforts.”

Sherrod Brown, senator from Ohio, discusses the multiple ways society fails Americans before they are incarcerated, writing: “We cannot end mass incarceration without addressing the systemic racism and economic inequalities that lead to it.” He outlines areas that we have to fix – like lending discrimination and low wages – in order to end mass incarceration.

Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, writes that reforming the nation’s unjust housing system is a core part of criminal justice reform. “Where someone lives dictates the likelihood that they will have interactions with the criminal justice system,” he writes.

Inimai Chettiar and Priya Raghavan in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program call on lawmakers to drastically reduce the number of incarcerated people across the country. One way to do that, they say, is to change federal incentives that helped contribute to the growth of mass incarceration. “Americans overwhelmingly seek both a smarter approach to crime than we’ve seen in the past and sustained policy changes to promote racial equality,” they write. “It’s up to our leaders to make this happen.”

Author and NYU Writer in Residence Ta-Nehisi Coates raises concerns that the prison industry is so massive and entrenched in American society that it might not ever get unspooled. He calls prison a social service provider and says that punishment is easier to levy if someone is seen as less human. Creating myths and stories in popular culture that humanize all people is one way to broaden imagination. “If there’s any sort of hope for unwinding mass incarceration, it begins there,” he says.

Alicia Garza, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, talks about the racism that permeates our criminal justice system, and calls for bold plans – including sentencing reform and federal government programs that incentivize de-incarceration. “These ideas are far from utopian,” she writes. “Across the nation, cities and states are experimenting with new approaches to addressing harm, recognizing that punishment is not a deterrent.”

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand emphasizes that the FIRST STEP Act, while a good start, “does not address many of the injustices women face in our justice system.” She calls for a national standard of care for people in prison who are pregnant, and for ending cash bail so families living paycheck to paycheck aren’t unfairly punished before a trial because they can’t afford to pay.

Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, details her personal experience as head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. Her tenure was marked by trying to improve relationships between law enforcement and communities across the country. She writes: “Solutions for fair policing required — and continue to require — confronting the sources of mistrust between communities and police.” The essay highlights the Leadership Conference’s New Era of Public Safety initiative, launched in March.

Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, shares behind-the-scenes details of the fight to get the FIRST STEP Act passed. From meetings with Senator Mitch McConnell to strategy around public opinion polling and media, she highlights the tactics and bipartisan collaboration that helped push the bill over the finish line. But, as Harris notes, “the First Step Act is just the beginning; there is much left to do.”

Senator Kamala Harris of California notes that as a prosecutor she has seen how the system can fall short, especially when it comes to guaranteeing a fair trial and due process for defendants. She calls for prosecutors to shift measures of success away from conviction rates, and towards reducing unnecessary imprisonment and lowering racial disparities. And she pushes for public defenders to be fully resourced, saying that “time and resource constraints discourage public defenders from taking cases to trial.”

Koch Industries’ Mark Holden describes America’s system of mass incarceration as a moral, constitutional, and economic problem. “To endlessly punish those who have paid their debt to society is simply immoral,” he writes. He offers four solutions to help solve it, including one idea he shares is to rename the federal Bureau of Prisons to the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and transfer it out of the Justice Department and into Health and Human Services.

Sherrilyn Iffil and Jin Hee Lee with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund write that the “mass incarceration of Black people is not a product of chance,” but an “inevitable outcome” of dehumanization of Black communities. “True reform also requires fundamental shifts in our national narratives about criminality and about the humanity of Black families and communities,” adding that “we cannot count on current leadership in Washington, D.C. to shift this narrative.”

Van Jones, the cofounder of #cut50 and CEO of REFORM Alliance, calls on candidates and President Trump to confront the mass incarceration crisis directly – “not with platitudes, but with ambitious plans to attack the root causes of injustice in America.” He recommends that we stop using prison for lower-level crimes and shorten other sentences at the federal and state level, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, and focus on treatment instead incarceration for individuals who suffer from substance abuse disorders.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar draws on her experience as a Minnesota prosecutor, calling for increased federal support for drug courts and for fighting addiction. “It has become increasingly clear that there are two systems of justice in America – one built for crimes committed in the boardroom and another for crimes on the street corner.” Klobuchar writes: “That has to change.”

Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Donald Trump, highlights the FIRST STEP Act. He promises to “work to fully implement the [bill], ensuring it delivers in practice the reforms it promises.” And he pledges further action on criminal justice reform from the White House, including additional reentry support for formerly incarcerated individuals such as fair-chance hiring practices for people with criminal records.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke shares his personal experience with the criminal justice system, noting that while his arrests ultimately did not define him, that’s not the case “for far too many of our fellow Americans, particularly those who don’t look like me or have the same privileges that I did.” He calls for getting rid of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, abolishing private prisons, ending cash bail, reopening the Office of Access to Justice, and more.  

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson says it’s time for America to change its entire thought process around the criminal justice system. “We need to do a much better job of popularizing an understanding of the criminal justice system as mostly harmful and ineffective if we’re going to expect people to get on board with making major changes,” he says. Robinson writes that part of reform starts with changing the story about justice that is told through entertainment and television.

Topeka Sam, founder and executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, shares how her own experience as a formerly incarcerated woman helped her identify specific challenges that women face in the criminal justice system, and inspired her to start her own organization. “Hope House is a place to heal from the trauma that landed women in prison and the trauma of prison,” she writes. Sam outlines systemic solutions that can specifically help women, including: ending money bail, curtailing parole and probation, reducing use of electronic monitoring, and increasing alternatives to incarceration. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders argues that financial motives have corrupted the justice system and calls for an end to the use of private prisons. He writes that the country should end the perverse incentives that lead to mass incarceration. “Any system that continues to keep human beings behind bars and in prison beds as a revenue stream is a system that must be drastically overhauled,” he says.

“The dream of equal justice will become a reality only if we reform our criminal justice system, top to bottom,” says Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She calls for an end to mandatory minimums and private prisons, as well as more resources for mental health and substance use disorder treatment.

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