How Do We Reform the US Justice System?
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Throughout the years, trust in the US Justice System has been damaged by the many flaws within it. With racial profiling, harsh drug laws, mass incarceration rates, and institutionalised discrimination, there is a clear need for the system to be reformed.
The US criminal justice system is divided into three branches. Firstly, the police are in charge of enforcing laws and public order; secondly, the courts possess the authority to make decisions based on existing law; thirdly, the corrections or prison system fulfils the role of supervising those who have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced for a criminal offence.
This article will outline the major flaws of the US justice system and offer some possible solutions to reform it.
Systemic racism is a phenomenon that has developed over many years that sees the political and economic institutions of society operating to systematically disadvantage ethnic minorities — especially those in the working class — while at the same time systematically giving an advantage to white upper classes, consequently creating inequality.
Systemic racism is based on stereotypes and bias that have taken root in American culture. Though the imprisonment rate of black Americans has decreased 34% since 2006, it is still significantly higher than for other ethnic groups. In fact, data shows that the incarceration rate of African Americans in state prisons is more than five times the rate for white Americans. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than ten to one. In twelve states, more than half of the prison population is black.
"In twelve states, more than half of the prison population is black"
Research in this area finds a smaller amount of disparity for serious crimes (like murder) than for less serious crimes, especially drug crimes. Studies show that there are three major explanations for these racial disparities: policies and practices that drive disparity, the role of implicit bias and stereotypes in decision-making, and structural disadvantages in communities of colour which are associated with high rates of offending.
Systemic racism affects many areas of everyday life, including on a legal, economic, educational, and private level. If the access alone to these areas is already not equal, how can the path along the way be any different? This issue requires more education and awareness-raising around the topic, as well as laws creating equal opportunities, regardless of social status.
Increased public school funding which is independent of property taxes is crucial to providing equal opportunities from an early age. In this way, access to education would not be related to a person's wealth or privilege.
For more information on systemic racism, head to our guide.
From the 1970s, the number of imprisoned people increased considerably in the United States, becoming one of the countries with the highest incarceration rates in the world. Many might associate this with a rise in crime, yet incarceration rates soared primarily due to changes in the law which made a wider variety of crimes punishable by incarceration and lengthened the sentences served. Incarceration rates have risen even when crimes fall, suggesting that the two rates are not necessarily dependent on each other.
Over the past 30 years the share of offenders sent to prison has climbed dramatically for all major crimes, especially with drug offences. As for the length of the sentence, between 1990 and 2009, the average time served in prison rose by nearly 25% for property crimes and by roughly 37% for violent and drug crimes.
High incarceration rates impose both significant human and budgetary costs. People with criminal convictions face serious challenges in finding stable, decent-paying jobs, a particular problem given that they are typically less educated. Even those who do find jobs usually earn less than otherwise-similar people who haven’t been incarcerated.
Imprisonment has now started to decrease over the past decade as some policymakers have started to realise that punitive laws may not be an effective use of resources nor a proven method of reducing crimes. Also, many states are no longer able to continue financing their massive prison systems.
One suggestion might be to invite legislatures to pass laws that encourage alternatives to incarceration. Such alternatives could include rehabilitation programmes such as mental health courts or mentoring programmes, community service, or probation where incarceration would otherwise be required. The view is that incarceration should generally be avoided for less serious offences and alternatives should be incorporated into sentencing.
A mandatory minimum is a minimum sentence which the court must give to a person convicted of a particular crime, regardless of the unique circumstances of the offender or the crime itself. Typically, mandatory minimums apply to gun and drug crimes and are based on the type and weight of the drug involved, or the presence or possession of a gun.
Originally, these laws were passed to ensure that certain criminals served long prison sentences. However, critics of the system claim that they are cruel and ineffective. They have also pointed out how these laws often unfairly target low-level offenders (e.g., light drug users) while the worst offenders (e.g., drug smugglers) tend to evade the system. Since courts can’t tailor these sentences to fit the individual, many people receive harsh punishments for what might be considered relatively minor crimes.
As drug-related mandatory minimums are based on only the type and weight of the drug, this prevents courts from considering other important facts. For instance, whether the offender is nonviolent, a drug addict, or their role in the crime.
"Critics claim that these laws are cruel and ineffective"
Another issue with these laws is that they do not allow for plea bargains. This means that even if the prosecutor wanted to offer a reduced sentence for a guilty plea, they are unable to do so. This robs those who are “less guilty” of their chance to have a less serious offence on their criminal record, contributing to the overcrowding of prisons. Many offenders who may have otherwise received short sentences are imprisoned for many years due to mandatory sentencing.
For this reason, activists argue that national and local legislatures should consider eliminating the so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws which make it more difficult for prisoners to be released early for good behaviour.
Similarly, the “three-strikes” law can result in harsh sentences for relatively minor crimes. This law imposes a life sentence for those defendants who have been convicted for a “serious violent felony” and have two or more prior convictions, at least one of which is a "serious violent felony." The other prior offense may be a "serious drug offense."
Mandatory minimums can therefore lead to unfair sentencing, create inequality among offenders and contribute to mass incarceration. It's argued that sentences should be shorter for low-level offenders, and the money that would be otherwise spent on their time in prison could be used to support communities and rehabilitation.
There are currently 24 US states in which the death penalty remains a potential punishment. Three other states — Pennsylvania, California, and Oregon — have Governor-imposed moratoriums on the death penalty, meaning it is suspended until deemed worthy again. Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in all states where the death penalty exists.
Capital punishment is also legal under the justice system of the federal US government. It can be imposed for crimes including treason, espionage, murder, and large-scale drug trafficking. However, since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, federal executions have remained rare. The Trump presidency proved to be an outlier, with five people being executed in the final months, making Trump the most prolific executioner-president in more than a century. Between 1988 and 2021, 79 federal defendants have been sentenced to death, of whom 16 have been executed.
"the death penalty costs more, delivers less and puts innocent lives at risk" - American Civil Liberties Union
According to Amnesty International, the death penalty is not only unethical, it is also discriminatory because it’s often used against the most vulnerable groups of society, such as the poor, and ethnic and religious minorities. Where justice systems are flawed and include unfair trials, the risk of executing an innocent person is a serious possibility. Additionally, there is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than a prison sentence. Amnesty International affirms that crime figures from countries which have banned the death penalty have not risen and, in some cases, they have actually decreased.
A sentence of life without parole means exactly what it says —those convicted of crimes are locked away in prison until they die. However, unlike the death penalty, a sentence of life without parole allows mistakes to be corrected or new evidence to come to light.
The American Civil Liberties Union states that the death penalty costs more, delivers less, and puts innocent lives at risk. Life imprisonment instead provides a severe and certain punishment. It provides justice to survivors of murder victims and allows more resources to be invested into preventing other crimes.
The US justice system is a vast and cumbersome beast, featuring a variety of flaws. We have seen how impossible it is to disconnect these issues from one another. Like a domino effect, one problem inevitably influences another aspect of the system, and no single issue can be viewed in isolation. With mass incarceration, cruel punishments and unequal sentencing, the system requires major reform that puts human life and dignity above punishment and retribution.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated US Politics section.