Criminal Justice System Reform Background
Moving Towards Restorative Justice
Reforming Our Criminal Justice System
In 1970 there were about 700,000 people in American prisons and jails and forty years later that number had risen to almost three million. With one twentieth of all the people in the world, the USA holds one fifth of the world’s incarcerated people. Our broken criminal justice system is a major breakdown in American democracy. This needs to change.
Working to change our criminal justice necessarily means working for fundamental social transformation. We must demand, as Reverend Martin Luther King put it fifty years ago, and as Reverend William Barber puts it today, “a revolution of values”. And in this people of faith can take the lead, because we especially are able to give America the kind of tough love and compassionate realism that she needs in times like these. This kind of tough love emanates from a wide variety of spiritual traditions.
Just as with the abolition of slavery, many Christians now acknowledge responsibility for the shocking growth in what many writers call a “carcerative society”. One writer calls for a prophetic vision by declaring that, “Jesus calls on us to be attentive to vulnerable demographics of society – the stranger, the poor, widows, and orphans. The church needs to speak and act to rectify the injustices of the American mass incarceration system. The writer quotes from Scripture; “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the captives go free….” (Luke 4-18-19). (Antonios Kireopoulos et. al.. eds., Thinking Theologically About Mass Incarceration, New York: Paulist Press, 2017, pp. 350-351)
These sentiments are also reflected in Jewish traditions. The Hebrew words tikkun olam mean “healing of the world”, and they are part of the campaign of Jews United For Justice, an organization based in Washington, D.C. and also in Baltimore. This organization has worked for legislation to increase police accountability, in the Baltimore City Council, and in the Maryland General Assembly. The Seder is a ritual meal to commemorate the captivity of the Jewish people in Egypt and their flight to freedom in Israel. In Baltimore, Jews United For Justice observed this ceremony in 2017 by focusing on police accountability.
Love Resists is a joint campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) that activates people of faith and conscience to resist criminalization and build a safer and more just world. In advancing the concept of resistance with love this UU campaign casts a broad net to include various groups of people who have been targeted for their ethnicity as well as their gender identity. It seeks to build consciousness within congregations as well as to reach out for broader social alliances.
As Unitarian Universalists we hold that no one is disposable, and that we must be building connections with those who are most directly affected by the violence of the prison system. We recognize that there are diverse viewpoints on the solutions to our broken system, but part of the national conversation has got to involve mercy and compassion. In this national conversation, some approaches emphasize cost-saving factors while others stress the centrality of racism and white supremacism as the major explanation. Much of this discussion is based on secular legal and social science criteria. As patriotic people of faith, we of the UULM-MD stand with our sisters and brothers of other religions in basing our social justice advocacy on moral and spiritual values. Our tough love for America is based on our conviction that every human being possesses an inherent worth and dignity, as we seek to build a global beloved community of the interrelated human family.
Our Criminal Justice Task Force has decided to focus on four areas; (1) correctional education, (2) transparency in police complaint procedures, (3) excluding a checkoff on application forms that discloses criminal history, and (4) pre-trial release reform.
Currently, people serving time in prison are allowed to earn days off their original sentences for good behavior. We are supporting an additional, new type of sentence diminution credits for successful attainment of major educational goals identified in an inmate’s approved treatment plan. When incarcerated people are offered the chance to learn new things, their sense of hope and self-esteem is greatly enhanced. In a classroom environment, prisoners interact with teachers who have taken time to prepare relevant information, and who care about their students. In addition to vocational opportunities, workforce development also involves exposure to social science and humanities perspectives that contribute to self-reflection and civic responsibility. Research by groups like the RAND Corporation has clearly established that correctional education not only significantly reduces recidivism, but also returns five times the amount of money invested.
Transparency in Police Complaint Procedures
Under current law when a civilian files a complaint against a police officer, that action is not open to the public, and the only time it becomes open is after a decision has already been made. We are therefore advocating for a bill that would declare that a record related to a formal complaint of job-related misconduct against a law enforcement officer, including an investigation record or record of any discipline imposed, is not a personnel record under the Maryland Personnel Information Act (MPIA), making such a record subject to disclosure, except under specified conditions.
Excluding a Declaration of Criminal History
Also known as “Ban-the-Box”. Marylanders reentering society from prison are required to declare their criminal history as part of the initial application to state colleges and universities. This practice greatly prejudices the acceptance rate for prospective applicants and also harms the ability of students to research grants and scholarships. Returning citizens are forced to bear an unfair mark based on their previous mistakes instead of being able to start with a clean slate. We are supporting the effort to override the Governor’s veto of the bill passed during the 2017 session that removes this disclosure.
Pre-trial Release Reform
Pretrial decisions on whether to incarcerate or release a person should be based on risk assessment instead of money bail. Here in Maryland, thousands of people are held in prison without having been convicted of any crime, simply because of their inability of make bail, while some very dangerous people are able to buy their way out. After the Maryland Attorney General questioned the constitutionality of the cash bail system, the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state supreme court) implemented rules making the imposition of money bail conditions a last resort to assure appearance at trial. In the 2017 session of the Maryland Assembly, an effort was made to reverse these reform efforts with a bill that would have preserved the cash bail system. We are prepared to oppose any such an effort again, and will support legislative action to codify the court rules or even improve upon them.
In 2015, UULM-MD made Criminal Justice Reform a Priority Issue and joined with the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR) in support of legislation in this area.
In 2015, UULM-MD supported a package of bills designed to reduce low-risk prison populations; re-purpose prison funds for screening, reentry, offender employment and other services to lower recidivism and increase public safety; expand the state’s successful juvenile mediation and “restorative justice” programs to adults; allow eligible persons to shield certain non-violent misdemeanors from prospective employers; and allow partial or full restoration of employment rights, licenses, etc., if no unreasonable risk is found to public safety or others’ welfare, among other provisions.
In 2016, UULM-MD continued working with the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform in support of legislation designed to repair gaps in MD’s corrections system. SB 1005/HB 1312 - Justice Reinvestment Act proposed fixes to funding, risk-screening, diversion, reentry, employment and parole. This 96 page bill addresses and reduces over-incarceration in Maryland and creates programs and resources to help keep people out of jail and help prevent their return. You can find a summary of the bill here. The bill passed and was signed by the governor.
In 2016, we worked with the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability in support of efforts to modify the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights to facilitate timely investigations of police misconduct (instead of shielding officers) and to make the process more transparent. Our efforts are ultimately aimed at raising awareness and promoting the discussion that Michelle Alexander advocated in her book, "The New Jim Crow". She told us that nothing will change unless America has a frank and serious discussion about race. We hope that pushing the issue of police accountability will help in that effort, and our support for criminal justice legislation, while important in itself, is ultimately a means toward the end of addressing the larger issues of race and privilege.
In May 2015, the Senate President and House Speaker created the joint legislative Public Safety and Policing Workgroup for the purpose of examining police training resources, recruiting and hiring practices, and community engagement policies; considering a statewide oversight panel for certain kinds of investigations; and reviewing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and its application and practice by law enforcement agencies across the State. The Workgroup issued its report in January 2016, and the House and Senate leadership introduced legislation to enact its 23 recommendations. While the reforms stopped short of requiring citizen participation in police discipline boards, it does allow local jurisdictions to include them. Additional reforms in the bill that make it easier to file police complaints and to ensure greater transparency in the complaint process are incremental. The bill passed and was signed by the governor.
UULM-MD began supporting criminal justice reform when it backed the Maryland death penalty repeal campaign and joined MD CASE (Maryland Citizens Against State Executions), the statewide coalition working to abolish the death penalty. Death Penalty Repeal – Substitution of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (SB276) was signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley on May 2, 2013. In May 2009, Governor O’Malley signed the toughest death penalty evidence legislation in the country. The measure required that capital cases be limited to those with biological evidence or DNA evidence linking the defendant to the act of murder; a videotaped, voluntary interrogation and confession of the defendant to the murder; or a video recording that conclusively links the defendant to the murder. Although full repeal was not realized that year, UULM-MD continued to work with MD CASE and its coalition partners over the next four years. Unitarian Universalists believe first and foremost in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. For us, this means every human being has inherent worth, regardless of their beliefs or their behavior. Many UUs believe that we shouldn’t put ourselves in the position of choosing who is worthy of life and who is not, because often we are wrong. Even when we are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, we can still be wrong – and the consequences of any error are too terrible to chance.