Could 2017 be the year for justice reform?

Lynch on Obama's criminal justice reform efforts (web extra)
Lynch on Obama's criminal justice reform efforts (web extra)

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    Lynch on Obama's criminal justice reform efforts (web extra)

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Lynch on Obama's criminal justice reform efforts (web extra) 03:00

Story highlights

  • Holly Harris: 2016 was a year of national partisan gridlock, but states got things done
  • 2017 could show an even bigger impact on incarceration problem, she writes

Holly Harris is executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, the largest bipartisan organization working to reform the justice system. The opinions expressed here are hers.

(CNN)2016 will never be known as the year America engaged in deep policy debates. The presidential campaign became mired in personal attacks, Republicans and Democrats retreated to their corners, and there wasn't much oxygen left for conversations on how to fix our country's biggest problems. For that reason, groundbreaking bipartisan efforts on the Hill to reform our federal justice system failed to get a floor vote in either chamber in the 114th Congress.

And yet, justice reform may have had its strongest year ever.
Holly Harris
As federal reform legislation stalled, focus shifted to the states, where leaders have come face-to-face with the harsh reality that we are putting too many people behind bars for too long for the wrong reasons. Because of that, taxpayers are spending too much money on a justice system that feeds a revolving door of incarceration and fails to provide the public safety return our communities deserve.
    So the states became the compelling, but quiet, justice reform story of 2016. From Georgia to Minnesota, Maryland to Alaska, the states passed broad, sweeping overhauls to unduly harsh sentencing laws, archaic criminal codes, and inadequate rehabilitation and reentry programming. And states that had previously implemented reforms showed impressive public safety results. Over the past five years, the 10 states that most significantly reduced their prison populations saw a more significant decline in crime than those states where imprisonment rates continue to climb.
    The reform movement flexed political muscle, too. In Oklahoma, a state with the country's second highest incarceration rate and the highest incarceration rate among women, voters approved two ballot measures by a healthy margin: one that would reclassify certain felonies as misdemeanors, thereby reducing the prison population; and a second that would reinvest those cost savings into addiction and mental health treatment programming. Keep in mind that Oklahoma is a deep red state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
    Moving farther south, Louisiana is America's greatest justice reform challenge. The Pelican State has the highest incarceration rate in the country, but a crime rate comparable to its southern state neighbors. After electing a smart-on-crime governor with close ties to law enforcement, the state legislature passed seven bills that strengthen reentry programming, including a "ban the box" bill that would break down barriers to employment for those with records so they can secure good jobs and turn away from crime. In the coming year, Louisiana will embark on a total overhaul of its justice system that will address the disturbing number of low-level offenders behind bars who would see better outcomes through alternatives to incarceration such as addiction and mental health treatment.
    In the heart of the Midwest, Minnesota recognized unduly harsh drug sentencing laws as a threat to its traditionally low incarceration rates and public safety. State reform leaders brought law enforcement to the table to lead the charge on the most significant drug sentencing reforms in decades. Its neighboring state, Iowa, saw a Republican Governor and Democratic Attorney General working together to pass legislation to curb mandatory minimums.
    Across the country, we saw dozens of signing ceremonies for significant justice reforms, due in no small part to the strong coalition of diverse voices setting the example for lawmakers that these issues truly have no political or ideological boundaries. Faith-based voices, business leaders, law enforcement officials, civil rights advocates, and limited-government organizations all agreed that the old "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach of the 1980s and 90s had failed us, and that reforms proven to lower crime and recidivism rates save valuable taxpayer resources while improving public safety. No other issue can claim such a broad and diverse base of support, and few policies provide such indisputable data proving their efficacy.
    All this lays the groundwork for 2017, a year that could see even more achievement. We will invest resources toward moving large-scale reform packages in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. We will expand our work into states like Tennessee and Wyoming, where reform work is just beginning to take shape, as well as expand efforts in Texas, a state that kick started comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts a decade ago.
    While the state reform successes may not get as much attention, they will easily have the most impact. Of the 1.56 million people currently in prison, 1.35 million are in state facilities, and more often people of color are overrepresented in them. Millions more cycle through local jails every year. Reforms that reduce these numbers at the state level will make the real difference in our country's incarceration problem and begin to address the racial disparities therein. There will come a time when so many states have enacted these reforms that our friends on the Hill will have no choice but to act.
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    Here's hoping that time presents itself in 2017.