Newsbrief: American Bar Association Report Calls for "Smart on Crime" Approach, End to Mandatory Minimum Sentences 6/25/04

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In a report issued Wednesday, the American Bar Association (ABA) has called for abolishing mandatory minimum sentences, as well as a host of other measures that would reverse years of "tough on crime" policies. The report by the ABA's Justice Kennedy Commission urges a fundamental change of course toward less reliance on incarceration and greater attention to more effective alternatives.

"For more than 20 years, we have gotten tougher on crime," said ABA President Dennis W. Archer. "Now we need to get smarter. We can no longer sit by as more and more people -- particularly in minority communities -- are sent away for longer and longer periods of time while we make it more and more difficult for them to return to society after they serve their time. The system is broken. We need to fix it."

The study of criminal justice policy was the ABA's response to a speech given by US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy at the ABA's 2003 annual meeting in San Francisco. In that speech, Kennedy called for the legal profession to address the "inadequacies -- and the injustices -- in our prison and correctional systems."

The Justice Kennedy Commission report does not yet represent the position of the ABA, the nation's largest lawyers' group and the world's largest voluntary professional association, with some 400,000 members. But it will be considered by the ABA House of Delegates for adoption as policy at its Annual Meeting in Atlanta on August 9 and 10.

The report's recommendations cover four primary sets of issues: sentencing and incarceration issues, racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice systems, prison conditions and prisoner reentry issues, and pardons and clemency processes. Among its recommendations:

  • Repeal mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Study and fund alternatives to incarceration for offenders who may benefit from treatment for substance abuse and mental illness;
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures to combat racial and ethnic profiling;
  • Implement prison policies and programs that, from the beginning of incarceration, assist prisoners in preparing to reenter society by providing, for example, substance abuse treatment, educational and job training opportunities, and mental health counseling and services;
  • Identify and remove unnecessary legal barriers that prevent released inmates from successfully reentering society;
  • Establish community partnerships that include corrections and police officers, prosecutors, and community representatives committed to promoting successful reentry into the community and that measure their performance by the overall success of reentry;
  • Expand the use of executive clemency to reduce sentences, as well as other processes by which persons who have served their sentences can request a pardon, restoration of legal rights and relief from collateral disabilities;
  • Establish criminal justice racial and ethnic task forces to study and make recommendations concerning racial and ethnic disparity in the various stages of the criminal justice process; and
  • Establish reentry clinics in law schools in which students assist individuals who have been imprisoned and are seeking to reestablish themselves in the community, regain legal rights, or remove collateral disabilities.
"These recommendations are intended to make our criminal justice systems more effective and to utilize our limited resources more efficiently," said the commission's chair, Steven Saltzburg. "For too long we have focused almost exclusively on locking up criminals. We also need to look at the other side of the coin: what happens when they get out. We have to remember that roughly 95% of the people we lock up eventually get out. Our communities will be safer and our corrections budgets less strained if we better prepared inmates to successfully reenter society without returning to a life of crime."

Saltzburg highlighted the injustice of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. "Mandatory minimum sentences tend to be tough on the wrong people," he said. The commission noted that the average federal drug trafficking sentence was 72.7 months in 2001. By comparison, the average federal manslaughter sentence was 34.3 months, the average assault sentence was 37.7 months, and the average sexual abuse sentence was 65.2 months.

Read the ABA's Justice Kennedy Commission report and associated documents at online.

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