As a former prosecutor I’ve seen the enormous good our justice system can do to keep families and communities safe. I’ve also seen the damage that can be done when that power is abused.
Today, there are over two million Americans incarcerated in our federal and state prisons, most for non-violent crimes.
We need to reform our criminal justice systems so that non-violent offenders, the mentally ill, and those suffering from addiction stop being incarcerated in such overwhelming numbers. This means looking at more alternatives to incarceration for non-violent first-time offenders. Overly harsh sentences should be reduced. We need to address drug addiction as a health care crisis and stop treating those suffering from addiction like violent criminals.
We need to look for better ways to help those in prison. Incarcerated populations should not be subjected to health-threatening conditions and should benefit from access to medical care. They should be armed with new skills to assist with their successful re-entry into the community.
We also need to solve the deep racial disparities and discrimination entrenched in our justice system. In Pennsylvania, over 60% of the incarcerated population are people of color, despite accounting for less than 20% of the state’s overall population. This is not a coincidence. African-Americans are more susceptible to a number of inequitable practices, including serving longer prison sentences for the same crime, more frequent arrests for non-violent drug use, or imprisonment due to an inability to afford bail.
Initiatives to fix this include the legalization and reclassification of marijuana, for which arrest for possession rose by 33 percent between 2010 and 2016 across Pennsylvania despite Philadelphia’s progress on the issue by passing a decriminalization law in 2015.
We also need to address issues in policing. Our law enforcement officials deserve praise for their willingness to face a dangerous job every day. But abuse of the system must be curbed. In Philadelphia, 60 percent of officers fired for misconduct are subsequently rehired. We need to encourage police protocol that minimizes discrimination and penalizes misconduct.