The Next Step for Criminal Justice Reform

In an op-ed last week, CF’s president Charles Mitchell and former CF board chair Jane Janeczek offered an appraisal of the First Step Act signed by President Trump on Dec 21.

Their key takeaway and call to action for state lawmakers:

We hope lawmakers see the bipartisan momentum behind the First Step Act as an opportunity to advance additional reforms at the state level where most prisoners reside.

Shortly thereafter, a commentary in the Wall Street Journal warned, “beware the next step on criminal justice reform” lest it be too lenient on violent criminals.

A couple of quick facts from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections annual reports clarify what the “next step” in criminal justice reform needs to look like.

First, in spite of the commentary’s implications, a large number of individuals are going to state prison for drug charges. Of court commitments to state prison in 2016 and 2017, more than 20 percent were for narcotic drug offenses—the largest single category.

DUIs count separately from drug offense, at 5 to 6 percent per year. The second single largest category was Theft/Larceny—a nonviolent crime, different from robbery and burglary where the victim is present. Only 4 percent were for murder and just 1.6 to 1.7 percent for first degree murder.

Second, more than half of prison admissions were for parole violations, not court sentences, in the last two years.


(Chart: Who Goes to State Prison?)

Given these trends, it seems pretty clear that the “next step on criminal justice reform” should emphasize fixing parole and probation in Pennsylvania—with an focus on helping individuals transition from prison into the workforce and becoming productive members of society—to reduce recidivism.

Likewise, sentencing reform that identifies high-risk and low-risk offenders and offers substance abuse treatment would ensure we are tough on crime, while being smart on crime.