Over the past eight months, aspects of our criminal justice system have been under increased scrutiny, and deservedly so. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, exposed on cellphone video, rightfully sparked anew outrage over the disparate treatment of people of color by police across the nation.
The protests and turmoil that followed has had some positive effect — here in New Hampshire, reforms are already underway via the quick action of the governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency. Among its most important findings was that police training and policy must pay more attention to diversity of culture and address implicit biases, and that hiring should make a priority of seeking minority candidates.
These findings and the recommendations that stem from them address one part of the justice system — policing. But there are other areas in which advocates have been seeking change for decades, among them court policies, the criminal code and corrections.
This month, a series by The Sentinel’s Paul Cuno-Booth took a look at some of those areas, with an eye toward the baked-in limitations and discrimination and the effects on the lives of those caught up in the justice system. Better Judgment — which can be found at www.sentinelsource.com/betterjudgment — found some areas in which the system can do more harm than good.
It also sought responses to some of those issues, and highlighted reforms and programs that challenge the way we look at “criminals,” “punishment” and how best to both protect our communities and serve those who run afoul of the law.
One of the biggest takeaways is that the “war on” mentality of crime and punishment — think: the War on Drugs — and other aspects of the judicial system largely amount to a war on those with few resources. Sentences for relatively minor crimes punish those who pose little threat to society while crowding our jails. Bail procedures keep poorer defendants behind bars when they pose little threat, often costing them their jobs and making matters worse. And a criminal record can turn one stupid mistake into a lifelong albatross.
Some reforms are already underway. The state court system began implementing bail reform measures in 2019 that make clear judges don’t have to lock up every defendant by default. To lessen overcrowding, some corrections departments have turned to alternative sentences, including electronic monitoring, that, again, allow “inmates” to maintain jobs and stay away from the prison atmosphere.
Among the programs explored in Better Judgment are the state’s drug courts, which shift low-level drug cases out of the circuit courts to another track. Defendants there have the opportunity to avoid jail time by adhering to mandated therapy, classes and drug treatment.
Another, aimed at keeping people out of the judicial system altogether, gives police officers wide discretion in whether to charge someone with a petty crime, such as shoplifting. Called police-led diversion, it puts the front-line law enforcers in the position of offering help instead of handcuffs. Similarly, a program implemented in Brattleboro specifically for drug users, Project CARE, teams officers with recovery coaches to provide treatment and advice to those teetering on the brink of addiction-fueled lawlessness.
And pretrial diversion programs can help, as Cuno-Booth wrote, save millions of Americans from “reduced job and housing prospects, ineligibility for some public benefits and the lingering stigma of being labeled a criminal.”
As more attention is being paid to traditional American practices of policing, trial and corrections, the bad news is too many of them are mired in systemic racism and other biases, often cause disproportionately negative outcomes for those caught up in the system, and are costly and unwieldy.
The good news is that efforts to challenge and improve those practices have been well-received in Vermont and New Hampshire.