RELEASE: New CAP Column Highlights 5 Conversations That Shaped the Justice Reform Movement in 2020

Washington, D.C. — In 2020, several high-profile incidents of police violence against Black Americans set off a national dialogue on the urgent need for justice system reform. In the intervening months, the movement has inspired bold ideas and tangible policy reforms, laying the groundwork for a transformational change to the nation’s approach to safety and justice. This is the main conclusion of a new multimedia column released today by the Center for American Progress.

During the summer of 2020—a critical moment in the justice reform movement—the Center for American Progress, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation virtually gathered 1,000 advocates, researchers, artists, and practitioners for the 2020 Innovations Conference, a multiday exploration of what it means to reimagine public safety and shrink the footprint of the justice system. Today’s multimedia column details key issues that are shaping the national conversation around safety and justice, weaving in voices from the Innovations Conference to highlight the progress to date and the pathway forward. Key issues include:

  1. Investing in safety beyond policing. In most American cities, police department appropriations make up a significant portion of local budgets. Yet, communities need more than just investments in policing, a fact that police officers themselves have acknowledged. Investments in community-building resources—including high-quality health care, child care, and education; access to affordable housing; and other supportive services—are integral to building safer and stronger neighborhoods.
  2. Promoting police accountability. American police have significant leeway to use force against civilians, yet officers are rarely held accountable for the harmful—and, in some cases, deadly—consequences of their actions. Policymakers have begun answering calls to overhaul policing practices, including by establishing use-of-force guidance to proactively prevent misconduct and creating processes to hold officers accountable when misconduct occurs.
  3. Ending unjust punishments. Policymakers across the political spectrum have renounced the war on drugs, a punitive policy agenda that has exacerbated mass incarceration by imposing excessive punishments for substance use, particularly for communities of color. Yet in 2019, law enforcement agencies still made more than 1.5 million drug-related arrests. Promisingly, jurisdictions across the country are taking action to dismantle the war on drugs and to challenge excessive punishments for all offenses—even serious ones. Jurisdictions across the nation have begun the important work, eliminating unjust punishments and adjusting sentence lengths to ensure that every offense is met with a fair and proportional response.
  4. Eliminating racial disparities across the justice system. Racial disparities pervade every stage of the American criminal justice system, from police stops to incarceration and beyond. To confront racism in policing, some localities have ended practices that target communities of color, such as stop-and-frisk. Tragically, the disproportionate harm of the justice system has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals. To protect the incarcerated population, some jurisdictions have taken steps to decarcerate—reforms that can and should be sustained even once the pandemic subsides.
  5. Removing barriers facing individuals affected by the justice system. After decades of overcriminalization, nearly 5 million Americans have spent time in prison, and upward of 77 million Americans have some sort of criminal record. Individuals affected by the criminal justice system face immense barriers, even after serving their sentences. Promisingly, jurisdictions have adopted a range of policies to break down barriers facing these communities—from expanding reentry services and voting rights to issuing pardons and sealing old criminal records to provide people with a clean slate.

“The past year has sparked long-overdue conversations about the failings of the American criminal justice system, igniting a nationwide movement to redefine safety and justice. The dialogue on justice reform is now leaving its mark on city halls and state legislatures, building on decades of advocacy and leadership in communities nationwide,” said Betsy Pearl, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the CAP and co-author of the column. “There’s still so much work left to do, but the activism and achievements of the past year give us hope that our society will one day achieve safety, justice, and equity for all.”

Read the column: “5 Discussions That Shaped the Justice Reform Movement in 2020” by Kenny Lo, Sarah Figgatt, Betsy Pearl, and Chelsea Parsons

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