Justice Reform

Massive Bi-Partisan Report Aims at Reforming Criminal Justice

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

The Academy of Justice at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law has just published a remarkable, and remarkably ambitious report titled Reforming Criminal Justice.

The four-volume report is made up of 57 chapters contributed by 120 academic experts, cumulatively totaling well over 500,000 words, with nearly 5,000 footnotes.

The idea of the project is to “help change public policy for the better,” writes Eric Luna, the report’s editor and project director, who is the Amelia D. Lewis Professor of Constitutional & Criminal Law at Arizona State.

Yet, a significant quality that differentiates the report from other ventures with similar goals, is that Luna and company made a conscious effort to bring together on its pages a list of highly respected scholars—some of whom are politically to the right of center, while others are on the left.

It is also important to mention that the Reforming Criminal Justice report was funded by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, although the report specifies that funders had “no editorial input or control over its contents, and they were not involved in the selection of authors and project participants.”

The variety among the scholars is evident at the beginning of Volume 1, where one chapter by David Cole, the National Legal Director for the ACLU, is situated right next to a chapter by Clint Bolick, formerly the chief litigator for the conservative-leaning Goldwater Institute, who is now an Arizona Supreme Court justice.

Cole’s chapter describes “The Changing Politics of Crime and the Future of Mass Incarceration,” while in his chapter, Bolick makes a fact-laden and impassioned plea for reform of the cash bail system.

In Erik Luna’s introduction to the report, he makes it clear that there is no guarantee that the author of one chapter, endorses all that is written in the chapter by another author.

But that isn’t the point, Luna told WitnessLA. Most of all, he said, the authors were chosen to contribute to the report “precisely because they are leaders in their respective fields and “are known to be thoughtful and reasonable.”

Finding experts

A random perusal of, say, then of the nearly sixty chapters, supports Luna’s contention; the
the project has an undeniably impressive list of contributors who have put thought and time into their chapters.

For example, there is Douglas Berman who—in addition to being the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at The Ohio State University—writes the widely-read and widely-cited blog, Sentencing, Law & Policy. Luna chose Berman for the report’s chapter on Sentencing Guidelines, and it would be difficult to find anyone in the nation who is better able to inform the rest of us on the issue.

The same could be said for most of those on the contributor list. Sharon Dolovich, of the UCLA School of Law directs UCLA’s Prison Law & Policy Program, was the Deputy General Counsel for the Los Angeles Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, and her scholarly article on prison conditions and the Eighth Amendment, has been downloaded over 23,000 times in more than 110 countries worldwide.

In her “Prison Conditions” chapter—found in Volume 4 of the report—Dolovich explains the topic in practical terms. We need to care about this issue for two big reasons, she writes. The first is the fact that research clearly indicates poor and inhumane prison conditions do not encourage successful reentry.

“And absent effective social reintegration of the people newly released from prison,” writes Dolovich, “the harms the carceral system inflicts are sure to be exported, one way or another, to the community at large.”

The other big reason to care if people in custody are treated humanely, according to Dolovich, is that “the safety and well-being of prison staff” may depend upon it.

“Prisons that are scary and stressful for prisoners are also scary and stressful for the correctional officers (COs) and other staff who work inside.”

Correctional officers, she continues, “have some of the highest levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide of any profession. Their families also suffer an elevated risk of violence at home….All these pathologies are manifestations of the extreme stress and psychic pain COs and other prison staff can experience on a regular basis in environments defined by anger, resentment, tension, and fear. Prisons cannot be safe and healthy places to work unless they are safe and healthy places to live.”

Making scholarship accessible

Anywhere one dips into the report yields something interesting.

The whole of Volume 2 covers issues related to policing, featuring chapters with titles such as “Stop-and-Frisk,” “Race and the New Policing,” “Police Use of Force,” “Interrogation and Confessions,” and “Informants and Cooperators.”

Volume 3 covers pretrial and trial processes,” with chapters on “Grand Juries,” “Prosecutorial Guidelines,” “Actual Innocence and Wrongful Convictions,” “Crime Victims’ Rights,” and nine more where those came from.

Volume 4, which is the longest of the group, has 19 chapters that fall into the category of punishment, incarceration, and release.

Luna said one of the primary reasons he saw the need for this project had to do with the fact that criminal justice scholarship was too often not included in the justice reform discussion.

“Part of the problem,” according to Luna, “is that academic authors write to themselves—-that is, to other academics—-not to the public or even to policymakers, legal professionals, or policy analysts interested in criminal justice.”

As a result, academic scholarship tends to be dense, jargon-laden, “and, as a general rule, painful to read and unfriendly to normal human beings.”

It doesn’t help that scholarly works are often physically inaccessible to the interested layperson, in that they are published by academic presses and journals, and are frequently hidden behind paywalls.

This report aims to change all that.

Bipartisan hopes

The ACLU’s David Cole and his conservative legal colleague, Justice Clint Bolick, were both featured speakers at the Oct 31 conference at which the report was introduced.

What each of them told the assembled crowd of experts suggested the hopes Luna and his contributors have for the collective project.

“That the United States is the world leader in incarceration is a national tragedy,” Cole said. “It’s also unnecessary. …This report provides a road map, offering multiple options to achieve a more sensible criminal justice system. All that is needed is the will to change. And in recent years, Americans of all political stripes, from red, blue, and purple states, from cities and rural areas, have begun to develop that will. My hope is that this report helps us realize this truly worthy bipartisan goal.”

Bolick had a similar message when it was his turn to speak:

“We really have to get this right,” he said. “We are in what I would describe as the Goldilocks phase of criminal justice reform—-testing out what is too hot, too cold, and just about right….There is an incredible amount of intellectual wattage in this room,” said Bolick. “Please, illuminate us.”

The report is being distributed to policymakers, criminal justice officials, think tanks, non-profit organizations, and community activists, and is available to everyone else here.

For more on the report, see this provocative Q & A with report editor, Eric Luna.