A high-profile panel of public figures called for a total overhaul of the criminal justice system, from prison reform to providing counsel for the accused, and starting with the SAFE Justice Act.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference brought together the panel Thursday evening at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center to speak out against the current system of justice, which the panelists say over-polices, misuses grand juries and rewards private prisons.
Speakers included journalist Lauren Victoria Burke, Koch Industries Vice President Mark Holden, criminal defense lawyer Norman Reimer and Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
Burke said the best chance of passing legislation starts with a recent proposal, the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, a bill she says has bipartisan support.
“It’s a rare moment,” Burke said. “I’ve never seen a situation where you get liberal Democrats in the same room as conservative Republicans to agree on criminal justice policy … certainly not a specific bill.”
Burke said the proposal has 36 sponsors: 16 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Cedric Richmond, U.S. representative for Louisiana’s 2nd District, is one of those sponsors. U.S. Sen. David Vitter introduced a criminal justice bill along the same lines Wednesday, called the Youth PROMISE Act, which, if passed, would direct money toward programs that try to prevent youth violence.
The SAFE Justice Act, however, calls for the federal government to curtail over-criminalization by decreasing the use of grand juries. The act would require more evidence-based sentencing that gives low-level offenders probation more often, and it would reserve prison space for violent and career criminals. If passed, the act would attack recidivism by encouraging inmates to participate in programs once they are released.
Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the present justice system is riddled with problems, including the overuse of the grand jury, which he said often is nothing more than a “rubber stamp” to indict the accused. The solution is to bring judges to the forefront, he said. The SAFE Justice Act would restore discretion to judges.
Reimer said the general lack of representation in court only exacerbates this problem.
“People will fight for housing and health care, and they’ll fight for jobs,” Reimer said. “None of those things, by the way, are in the Constitution. We have a constitutional right to a lawyer whenever we are accused of a crime, and we don’t fight to enforce that.”
The group noted the U.S. spends $80 billion to house the nation’s prisoners, and though the nation holds only 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds a quarter of the world’s prison population. Chavis said this expense is hurting the U.S. economy.
“This is the land of the imprisoned,” Chavis said.
“This area — Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana — has very high rates of incarceration,” Burke said. “When you have a situation where incarceration is affecting so many people in society, what ends up happening is kids grow up without their parents. The people themselves are affected economically, and the poverty rates are high. … I think there’s a correlation between over-incarceration and those factors.”
A felony on someone’s record makes it difficult not only to find a job but also to take out student loans and to acquire housing, she said.
Reimer and Holden urged businesses to join the Ban the Box campaign, which asks that employers delete the criminal history box from their job applications. Koch Industries recently stopped asking for criminal history as part of this movement.
“People are human,” Reimer said. “They make mistakes, they change, they mature.”
Moderator Curley M. Dossman Jr., president of Georgia-Pacific Foundation, asked the panel to address private prisons in particular.
Holden, who worked as a prison guard when he was younger, said one problem with private jails is that they may be receiving incentives for keeping people in jail.
“If you run a private prison, you should not be paid based on how many people you’ve got in your prison,” Holden said. “Whether you are a federal or private prison, your job is to make the person better when they come out than when they came in.”
The panelists agreed, however, that it starts with a united, bipartisan public voice.
“We’ve got to go to the polls on this issue,” Chavis said. “We’ve got to build a movement for criminal justice reform.”
*This article was edited after publication to correct the name of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.