Booker Proposes Criminal Justice Reform

I’m not a big fan of Cory Booker, but I’ll be thrilled if, when he is inevitably elected to the Senate, he follows through on a promise to make criminal justice reform his primary focus. James Webb tried that and got nowhere and no one has tried since he left the Senate. Here’s what Booker proposes:

Some of the reforms Booker is advocating:

  • Step up the national conversation on decriminalizing marijuana.
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.
  • Eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
  • Increase federal funding for drug and community courts that divert low-level drug offenders from prison.
  • Work to end the use of private prisons.
  • Help inmates and their families maintain functional relationships, by making phone calls financially accessible, providing domestic abuse and counseling classes and working to incarcerate inmates in facilities as close to their families as possible.
  • Pass the Voter Empowerment Act of 2013 to restore federal voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.
  • Help formerly incarcerated individuals reenter society and find employment.
  • Increase grant funding for the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services, which is designed to assist law enforcement agencies in implementing community-based policing.

All important reforms, but only barely the beginning of what needs to be done. As I’ve been arguing for years, our criminal justice system is broken from top to bottom. I’d add a few more things to that list:

1. Legalization of all illegal drugs and a change of focus from drugs as a criminal problem to a public health problem.

2. A fully funded indigent defense system (funding should be at least equal to the resources that prosecutors have).

3. A requirement that every DA’s office have a conviction integrity unit like the one established by Craig Watkins in Dallas.

4. Elimination of all federal grants for the purchase of military equipment.

5. Elimination of prosecutorial immunity.

6. Mandatory video recording equipment on the uniforms of every police officer in America.

And even that is just the beginning of the reforms that need to be made.

“One of the biggest wastes of taxpayer dollars in our society today can be found in a criminal justice system in serious need in reform,” Booker writes in a report released Wednesday. “As mayor of Newark, I have watched as my police arrest, re-arrest, and then re-arrest again, sending the same person for another trip through a revolving door system that not only largely fails to rehabilitate, but too often makes reoffending commonplace and most definitely is not helping to make our communities safer.”

“The stakes are high,” he continued. “The issue of mass incarceration implicates the safety of our communities, billions of taxpayer dollars, and the health and cohesion of our families. Our next steps will determine whether our criminal justice system remains a vehicle for rigid punishment and waste, or becomes a springboard for rehabilitation, opportunity, and hope.”

I hope he means it.

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  • Michael Heath

    I think Sen. Webb’s background and skin color gave him more leverage to influence reform than a Sen. Booker. If Webb were a Republican he might have stood a chance.

    Sen. Webb is also a good example of the new standard-issue Democrat that has far more in common with moderate Republicans from the 1940s through 1990s then Democrats from that period, both the liberal Democrats back then along with the Dixiecrats and populists (left and right) in that period.

    It’ll be interesting to see how conservative Christians describe Mr. Booker if he becomes powerful enough to be perceived as a threat. I find him more liberal than President Obama, who’s more like Webb, and yet these Christians have already falsely portrayed Obama as a leftist authoritarian radical. However consistency has never been a desired attribute so I doubt their past actions on Obama will govern their future behavior with Booker.

  • colnago80

    Re Michael Heath @ #1

    Actually, Webb started out as a Democrat, then switched to the Rethuglican Party and was Ronnie the rat’s Secretary of the Navy, and then switched back to the Democrats over his disenchantment with the Iraq War.

  • Michael Heath

    slc, nothing I wrote revealed an ignorance of Sen. Webb’s political affiliations but instead an understanding of his past. Your continued effort to misrepresent what others write continues to reveal a demonstrable lack of integrity.

  • I’m curious how the federal government could stop private prisons. Isn’t that outside their power?

  • colnago80

    Re Michael Heath @ #3


  • uncephalized

    Is that new username a circumvent, slc?

    Gee, I wonder why you might have gotten banned…

  • colnago80

    Re uncaphalized @ #6

    No, it represents a new email address.

  • abb3w

    @4, Ace of Sevens:

    I’m curious how the federal government could stop private prisons. Isn’t that outside their power?

    That such an exercise of power would be an unlikely choice for Congress to make with its present composition doesn’t make it outside the theoretical scope of their power. It’s conceivably within the scope of legislative authority to ban or (abortion-clinic style) regulate them out of existence via the Article I Section VIII Commerce clause or Amendment VIII prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”, among other (though less practical) approaches.

  • dmcclean

    For Ed’s #3 (which is already a lot to hope for, but while we are hoping…) it would be great if we could set up a secret santa version of that. The DA’s conviction integrity office in county A looks into convictions in county F, and every couple of years we shake up who has whom. (Might be impractical because it would require too much travel, I don’t know the work involved at all well enough to say.)

  • thephilosophicalprimate

    These days, some reforms of our broken criminal justice system — such as the repeal of mandatory sentencing statutes, and sentencing reform in general (including scaling back sentences for non-violent drug offenses) — are even backed by the ultimate tool of the conservative/randian plutocracy, ALEC (as Ed himself noted a few weeks ago). In such a climate, I’d say that anyone who devoted serious effort to reform could make some real progress.

  • Pen

    All prisoner work programs to be fully voluntary and their labour to be directed towards non-profit making enterprises?

    I do think the opportunity for prisoners to work is valuable, both for their sanity during incarceration and to gain experience but I’m sure their exploitation for profit is at the heart of a vast range of abuses and problems as well as plain wrong.

  • One vitally important item has been overlooked here — reform of the plea bargain system. Currently, defendants are, on average, threatened with five times the sentence over what they are offered as a plea bargain, should they opt to go to trial, and some have been known to receive sentences up to 25 times that they were offered.

    Combined with the chronic lack of access to decent defense council, and minimum sentencing laws, the plea bargain system has become nothing more than legalized blackmail, and flies directly in the face of the constitutional right to a fair and timely trial. Over 95% of all criminal cases are estimated to never make it to trail these days. If that number was only, say, 75%, the court caseload would be so high that the whole system would likely collapse without major reforms, and then a major rethink over the way justice was meted out in the US would have to take place.