The Pendulum Swings: Reversing Criminal Justice Reforms in the United States

Political leaders across the country are adopting a tough-on-crime approach, rolling back previous criminal justice reforms.

Four years after the murder of George Floyd ignited a national reckoning with the injustices of the criminal justice system, a surprising shift is taking place. Political leaders in various states are embracing a tough-on-crime stance, reversing the reforms that were once hailed as the path to a more equitable system. From San Francisco to Washington D.C., voters and lawmakers are opting for policies that give more power to the police and impose stricter measures on offenders. This article explores the recent trend of rolling back criminal justice reforms and examines the implications for public safety and social justice.

Pendulum swinging across decades led to reforms during last 15 years

The pattern of reform and restriction in the criminal justice system resembles a pendulum, swinging between periods of leniency and toughness. The pendulum began its swing in the 1960s, with a wave of reform aimed at addressing systemic issues. However, the spike in crime during the 1970s led to a “get tough era” in the 1980s, fueled by the crack crisis. This period saw the implementation of mandatory sentencing, a surge in prison construction, and harsher drug enforcement tactics, resulting in a significant increase in the prison population.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a comprehensive federal bill on crime that had a complicated legacy, contributing to the phenomenon of mass incarceration. By 2007, the United States had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, with one in every 31 adults under the authority of the correctional system.

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Efforts to reduce the prison population gained bipartisan support in the following years, leading to the passage of the First Step Act in 2018. This act aimed to improve criminal justice outcomes while keeping crime rates low. Additionally, more than 30 states passed laws between 2007 and 2017 to reduce their prison populations. However, recent developments indicate a reversal of these reforms.

Louisiana, Oregon repeal previous reforms, critics say ineffective in public safety

Louisiana and Oregon have been at the forefront of the rollback of criminal justice reforms. Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry explicitly blamed the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act, signed in 2017, for the rise in crime. In response, he repealed a law that allowed courts to treat 17-year-olds as juveniles, subjecting them to the same legal consequences as adults.

Similar concerns have been raised in Oregon, where the House passed a bill repealing part of Measure 110, a voter-approved measure to decriminalize drug possession. Critics argue that recriminalizing drug possession would disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities and overwhelm an already strained criminal justice system.

San Francisco, D.C. expand police powers by ballot and council

San Francisco and Washington D.C. have recently taken steps to expand police powers and adopt tougher measures. San Francisco voters supported two propositions put forth by Democratic Mayor London Breed. Proposition E grants police greater agency by reducing paperwork and expanding the use of drones. Proposition F requires adult welfare recipients who use drugs to undergo treatment as a condition for receiving benefits.

In Washington D.C., the Council passed the Secure D.C. Omnibus Amendment Act, which includes provisions such as easier detention of individuals awaiting trial for violent offenses, an expanded definition of carjacking for prosecution, and the establishment of temporary “Drug-free zones.” While Mayor Muriel Bowser praised the legislation, the ACLU expressed concerns about potential abuse of power.

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‘A ratchet, not a pendulum’

While the recent trend may appear to be a return to the tough-on-crime era, experts argue that it is more of a ratchet effect rather than a complete swing of the pendulum. Adam Gelb, President and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice, believes that the current wave of tough-on-crime laws is a dialing back of the most aggressive policies rather than a complete rejection of a balanced approach. Gelb emphasizes the importance of maintaining the recent lows in crime rates while addressing public concerns about lawlessness and social standards.

Conclusion: The recent rollback of criminal justice reforms in the United States raises questions about the direction of the country’s approach to public safety and social justice. While some argue that these measures are necessary to address rising crime rates, others caution against a return to punitive policies that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. As the pendulum swings back towards tougher measures, finding a balance between public safety and the need for equitable reforms remains a paramount challenge for political leaders and advocates alike.