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New Justice Report Recommends Accelerating the Pace of Reform

police officer, lawyer with prisoner, judge

American University School of Public Affairs (SPA) and its Justice Programs Office released a report with recommendations from experts to transform the system into one that is more just and fair.

“There is no CEO to manage the entire system, and there is concern that those working in the core system components (police, courts, corrections) lack a shared vision for the future,” said John Firman, SPA professor of practice and symposium convener. “We wanted to bring experts with different perspectives and backgrounds together to develop a blueprint for a seamless and just system.”

The report was generated during a symposium convened by SPA that included a cross section of representatives from police departments, courts, and corrections as well as SPA staff, faculty, and students. They came together to discuss trends, including patterns of racial and ethnic bias, prosecutorial discretion, and high incarceration and recidivism rates, and to propose evidence-based solutions for consideration of leaders and policymakers.

“Our goal is to amplify this crucial conversation beyond campus and bring the recommendations from the report to the practitioners, thought leaders and policymakers who can have an impact on improving the system for all,” said SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins.

The U.S. spends $270 billion a year on its criminal justice system - 70 percent more than two decades ago, the report notes. Despite crime being at historic lows, the nation has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Today, nearly 2.3 million people are in prison and jails; another 4.7 million are under court supervision.

“It’s not that we have more crime. It’s that we have made a choice to incarcerate more people,” said Anne Milgram, professor of practice and distinguished scholar-in-residence at New York University School of Law, who provided the keynote at the symposium.

The report includes 10 transformational values viewed as crucial to system-wide reform, such as equality in administration, equity and inclusion in the workforce, provision of sufficient resources, community partnerships, leadership, and training. Recommendations to establish public trust and transform the system include the following:

  • Embracing equity and inclusion in police diversity. Police departments should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Diversity within the police force can have a direct impact on how communities view, engage, and support their local departments.
  • Eliminating cash bail. Research and policy work by global and U.S.-based organizations, including major justice system actors, has repeatedly found the system to be unfair and damaging, particularly to those with limited resources to make bail.
  • Adopting the practice of presumptive pretrial release for all misdemeanor charges. The only exception being those deemed dangerous to the community during the pretrial release process.
  • Adding greater emphasis to the reentry process. More than 60 percent of the people who come into the criminal justice system return to the system within two years of release.

For a summary of the report, for more information, and to sign up for updates, please email spacomms@american.edu.