Smart Decarceration Moves Forward

Monday, November 20th, 2017 @ 9:35AM

Efforts to reform our nation’s broken criminal justice system at the federal level have stalled in the current dysfunctional environment, but they are not quite dead. Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, chair of the Judiciary Committee, joined with Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois to reintroduce a bill they have been working on for a couple of years that will reduce the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing. S. 1917—the Sentencing Reform Act of 2017 has 11 co-sponsors, 6 Democrats and 5 Republicans, including the unlikely support of South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham. If enacted the bill will increase judicial discretion for sentencing of certain nonviolent offenses, apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, and establish recidivism reduction programs.

Senator Durbin was on hand at the recent Second National Conference of the Smart Decarceration Initiative held at the University of Chicago School of Social Administration November 2nd through the 4th with the theme: Tools and Tactics: Promising Solutions to Advance the Era of Smart Decarceration. He shared several stories about his engagement with communities over the years in the effort to reduce the devastation that disproportionate involvement in criminal justice system has had on communities of color and pledged to work diligently to pass the legislation he introduced with Sen. Grassley.

Senator Dick Durbin (left) talks with Dr. Matt Epperson as Dr. Pettus-Davis looks on.

The conference drew about two hundred students, faculty, advocates, government officials, and formerly incarcerated citizens. It was an impressive gathering of committed individuals. One could sense the energy among the conference participants. The panels were engaging and informative. Smart Decarceration is one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work. The co-leaders for the network are School of Social Administration Assistant Professor Matt Epperson and Brown School of Social Work Assistant Professor Carrie Pettus-Davis who soon will be taking her talents to Florida State University where, as an Associate Professor, she will be launching a criminal justice research center in the college of social work with the purpose of forging campus wide partnerships in criminal justice research.

Clearly Susan Burton was the event’s brightest star. Her book, Becoming Ms. Burton, has captivated thousands and has catapulted her advocacy to many notable platforms including the Trevor Noah Show. She is a 2010 CNN Top 10 Hero and was awarded the Citizen Activist Award from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. She founded and leads A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which has provided transitional housing and support services for more than 900 women leaving confinement. Another media star, Shaun King of Black Lives Matter fame, packed the 1500-seat Rockefeller to the delight of largely younger crowd.

Space does not permit a comprehensive overview of the conference, however, a glance at the agenda provides a sense of the breadth of expertise of those who gathered during the three days, most notably Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Michael Sheradden of the Brown School’s Center for Social Development, and Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. Interim SSA Dean Deborah Gorman-Smith was on hand to provide support. Kudos to Leon Sawh who handled all the details. “This work is something each of needs to be focusing on in the worlds we have influence,” Epperson said. “I am really pleased with the turnout, but it is really about what happens going forward.”

One bit of good news is that even as Congress drags its feet, states are working to get in front of the problem by ameliorating the harsh treatment of adolescents which often leads to greater propensity for criminal activity—particularly for those locked up in adult facilities. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of juveniles being held in adult facilities has been reduced to less than 1,000—an 82 percent drop from its peak in 1997. Seven states have passed laws raising the minimum age for placing juveniles in adult jails. The National Governors Association recently released a report on state-level efforts to employ community-based alternatives for youth entangled with the criminal justice system. The number of juveniles behind bars decreased by 54 percent from 2001 to 2015. Making similar progress with adults would go a long way towards healing our society.

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