The U.S. needs “a new normal in prosecution and we need federal leadership to get us there,” tweeted former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky, who is also the founder of the influential nonprofit, Fair and Just Prosecution.
In June of this year, President Joe Biden made his own gesture of leadership on the topic when he released a plan for reforming the U.S. criminal justice system. The plan outlined, among other things, how his administration would invest $1 billion towards juvenile justice reform, and it was praised by a wide array of justice advocacy groups, including the ACLU.
“The Joe Biden of today understands that he needs to be different from the Joe Biden of the 1994 crime bill,” wrote Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division.
“He has actively voiced regrets about being a proponent of ‘tough on crime’ legislation in the past, and one of the core principles of the administration’s Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice is ‘reducing federal spending on incarceration and reinvesting in the communities impacted by mass incarceration.’”
Indeed, the Biden plan is ambitious, and it points to several expeditious actions the administration hopes will be taken, such as “the immediate passage of Congressman Bobby Scott’s SAFE Justice Act,” which the plan rightly describes as an “evidence-based, comprehensive bill to reform our criminal justice system ‘from front-end sentencing reform to back-end release policies.'”
This is all good, yet, as recent news has made clearer than ever, the president has a lot on his plate, both in domestic and foreign policy arenas, thus it is difficult to know how much time he and members of his administration will be willing to devote to justice reform right this minute, even though the president has made it clear he understands the urgent nature of the matter.
Thus, it is timely that, in the last few days, a group of current and former elected prosecutors and attorneys general, plus other justice and law enforcement leaders — present and past — from across the nation, have signed on to a new letter that asks Biden and his administration to take the new and concrete step of convening a “Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution,” which the signatories believe can help to jump start some of the most urgently needed reforms, without much involvement from the administration.
“Taxpayers pay an estimated $182 billion each year for our current system that throws away far too many lives as well as scarce resources,” states the new letter, which is signed by more than a 100 justice leaders, around a dozen of whom are from California. The “traditional punitive approach to prosecution has not made us safer and it has not brought justice. We urge the Biden-Harris Administration to help us chart a new path forward.”
The idea is that the new task force, once formed, can take many actions on its own almost immediately, such as conducting a national tour with hearings in communities around the nation, “including with those most impacted by the criminal legal system.”
The task force would also visit prisons and jails in order to hold listening sessions with people behind bars, as well as with their families and loved ones.
And, significantly, the task force would be “located outside of, and independent from, the Department of Justice.”
The letter coincides with the release of a new white paper on the topic by Fair and Just Prosecution, which outlines how such a task force can “bring together the best thinkers in this space — people who have spent their lives studying these issues, people who have been failed or victimized by our criminal legal system, and people working to improve the system from the inside — to work together to surface bold, innovative ideas, and begin to look forward.”
The white paper points out that the timing is particularly critical because, as the nation still struggles to emerge from the pandemic, it is essential to aggressively move ahead “toward justice,” or there will be a predictable tendency to backslide.
According to the white paper, the goals and outcomes of the proposed new task force would include:
- A final report that identifies successful prosecutorial reforms and innovation, lays out key challenges to implementing change, details promising practices, and offers specific and tangible goals paired with policy and program recommendations that could include improving the safety and well-being of our communities, dramatically reducing jail and prison populations, ending racial disparities, and enhancing transparency and accountability;
- A strategic roadmap to incentivize and fund change and innovation, including by encouraging and enabling specific federal laws, policies, resources, and grants to help support and propel systemic transformation; and
- A concrete implementation plan, including the creation of an implementation oversight group and ongoing technical assistance from key federal government bodies and leaders.
“Communities across the country are demanding – and deserve – a new vision of justice, and local prosecutors have the power to drive this change forward,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a signatory on the letter. “As an elected leader and prosecutor, I have discretion that I use to make our criminal legal system more just and to improve community safety and wellbeing. We need federal leadership to help make this the standard of prosecution nationwide and to provide incentives and support to hardwire these changes.”
Yep. We do.