Three Ways To Fix Our Criminal Justice System
Criminal justice reform has been a signature issue of California senator Kamala Harris’ legal and political career; she served for six years as California’s Attorney General and, prior to that, in the same capacity for the city of San Francisco. She has written extensively on the subject, examining the root causes and offering solutions, and has provided us a few steps the government can take today to begin addressing the problems.
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For years, I’ve said that we’ve been offered a false choice on criminal justice policy. It’s a choice that suggests we are either “soft” on crime or “tough” on crime instead of asking: “Are we smart on crime?”
Throughout my career — as the elected District Attorney of San Francisco, Attorney General of California and now as a United States Senator — I’ve worked to make our justice system smarter and more fair.
Here are a few steps Congress could take right now to help reform our criminal justice system.
Reform the money bail system
In the United States today, a working mother accused of shoplifting can sit in jail for weeks, months, or even years — not because she’s a flight risk or a threat to public safety, but simply because she does not have the money to pay bail. She could potentially lose her job and maybe even her kids. Meanwhile, a wealthy person accused of the same crime can cut a big check and go home. That’s not equal treatment.
This is about fairness in our criminal justice system — and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. That’s why last year I partnered with Senator Rand Paul to introduce the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which incentivizes states to reform and replace money bail systems. It would empower states to build on best practices, such as phone or text reminders to ensure that defendants show up for court or individualized assessments to determine whether there’s a risk to releasing the defendant. And it would provide for better data collection so that reforms yield better outcomes — for defendants, families, and taxpayers.
Legalize marijuana at the federal level
Right now in this country, people are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal. As a former prosecutor and as a senator, I believe that it is well past time to make marijuana legal at the federal level.
The Marijuana Justice Act introduced by Senator Cory Booker would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, making it legal at the federal level. It would incentivize states to change their marijuana laws if those laws were shown to have a disproportionate effect on low-income individuals and/or people of color.
The bill would apply to those already serving time behind bars for marijuana-related offenses, and allow them to petition a court for a resentencing. It would also create a fund to reinvest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs and invest in job training, reentry, health education and other programs to improve the community.
Address the treatment of incarcerated women
Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population. But as I saw firsthand when I visited the women’s prison in Chowchilla, California — the largest female correctional facility in the United States — women inmates face unique issues that need to be addressed.
The Dignity For Incarcerated Women Act — which I’m proud to cosponsor with Senators Booker, Warren and Durbin — would make a series of common-sense reforms to how the federal prison system treats incarcerated women. It would require the Bureau of Prisons to consider the location of a woman’s children when she’s incarcerated and provide phone calls and videoconferencing free of charge. It would prohibit the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant inmates. It would obligate prisons to provide free feminine hygiene products to inmates. And it would invest in parenting classes, mental health and addiction treatment and other programs to help women inmates reenter society.
Even as the federal government reverts to some of the worst practices of the failed War on Drugs, we’re seeing people all around the country — and all across the political spectrum — embrace innovative policies to reform our criminal justice system.
The American people deserve a criminal justice system that treats everyone equally. It’s the smart thing to do. And it’s the right thing to do. So let’s all step up and make it happen.
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