In an earlier post we covered a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court for the first time used language in its opinion suggesting that “overcriminalization” is becoming a potential problem for the criminal justice system. That post dealt with the prospect of prosecutors becoming possibly overzealous in their attempts to enforce the law, so that activities that might not otherwise be criminal in nature become so by creative interpretation of existing statutes.
Recently, during a visit to Oklahoma in which he became the first president to ever visit a federal penitentiary, President Obama added his own thoughts to the idea that the U.S. criminal justice system is putting too many people into the penal system generally, and especially too many men from black and Hispanic populations.
The president went so far as to refer to the criminal justice system as “broken” in its reliance on putting people behind bars for long periods. Part of the possible remedy for a system that currently relies so heavily on incarceration would be for some specific steps to be taken, including:
- More emphasis to be placed on attempts to prevent crime instead of punishing it, focusing on education efforts.
- Sentencing reform to reduce the use of or to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, which tends to increase the size of both federal and state prison inmate populations (for example, the number of people imprisoned in the Oklahoma state criminal justice system increased by more than six percent in just one year from 2013 to 2014).
- Replacing mandatory minimum sentences with alternatives, including treatment or other non-prison correctional efforts for those convicted of violating drug laws.
- Improvements in prison conditions, most notably to reduce overcrowding and to decrease the use of solitary confinement.
- Making it easier for released convicts to re-integrate into society, such as by eliminating employer inquiries into criminal conviction records and changing state laws that prohibit certain criminals from voting. Oklahoma, for example, is home to more than 50,000 convicted felons who are ineligible to vote, approximately half of whom are no longer imprisoned; perhaps ironically, however, at the same time that some politicians are talking about loosening the prohibition against felons voting in this state, a newly enacted voter identification law that will be tied in with the state driver’s license database may have the opposite effect.
Whether any of these ideas will become law must remain to be seen, although it may be an encouraging sign that in the current time when political differences can seem to take priority over the national interest and in which the president’s “lame duck” status pending the upcoming presidential election next year competes with his increasing willingness to bypass Congress through the use of executive orders, members of both parties at both the national level and in Oklahoma have expressed interest in undertaking at least some reforms to the criminal justice system.
Until meaningful reforms take place, the criminal justice system at the national and Oklahoma state levels will continue to need to soldier on under existing rules, policies and procedures, which means that staying out of prison will continue to be a function of how effectively those accused of crimes can work together with their defense counsel to avoid that outcome at trial.