We Refuse to Turn Back the Clock: Advancing Criminal Justice Reform in the Face of Retreat

Senator Cory A. Booker
United States Senate
New Jersey

In our most hallowed spaces as a nation—atop the Supreme Court itself—we declare that we are a nation that values “equal justice under law.” In our national creed, we pledge that our nation stands for “liberty and justice for all.” Each generation of Americans—however imperfectly—has committed themselves to making these words truer for the next generation.

We who protect these civic aspirations must commit ourselves to addressing one of the greatest assaults on these ideals—a savagely broken criminal justice system that particularly and grievously harms the sick, the poor and communities of color.

Although the U.S. is home to less than five percent of the world’s population, one out of four imprisoned people on Earth are in the United States of America, and the majority of those incarcerated have been convicted of non-violent crimes. And this hasn’t always been so. Our explosion of incarceration began in the 1970s, with our prison population increasing 500 percent since 1980.

Our bloated, broken justice system doesn’t make us safer; it wastes vast human potential, squanders taxpayer resources, stifles our economic growth, and betrays our fundamental values.

While we know that, statistically, Blacks and whites are no different when it comes to using drugs or selling drugs—in fact, whites are slightly more likely to sell drugs—Blacks are 3.6 times more likely to get arrested for selling drugs.

We know that Black men are given sentences about 20 percent longer than white men for similar crimes; we know that Black women are at least two times likelier than their white peers to be incarcerated; and we know that too often, communities of color are both over-policed and under-protected, adding to the deficits of trust between police officers and the communities they serve. 

The consequences of this broken system extend far beyond prison walls. According to the American Bar Association, a criminal record carries 46,000 collateral consequences. Too often, a criminal conviction for a nonviolent offense makes it difficult—if not impossible—to get a job, get a loan, go to school and get housing. And because of felony disenfranchisement laws, 1 in 13 Black Americans are prevented by law from voting, and Black citizens are four times more likely to have their voting rights revoked.

We all bear the burdens of our justice system’s failures; the incarceration explosion of the past three decades has cost all American taxpayers dearly. While we failed to invest in things like rail infrastructure, our roads and bridges, between 1990-2005, we drained our precious national resources by opening a new prison every 10 days in the United States. And it is estimated that the U.S. poverty rate between 1980 and 2004 would have been more than 20 percent lower if not for mass incarceration.

Our nation’s criminal justice system is costing us all dearly, isn’t making us safer, is deeply broken, and widens racial and socioeconomic divides. But we also know that we have the power and ability to change it.

That’s why over the past several years, Democrats, Republicans and people from across the political spectrum have begun to come together. Federal criminal justice reform efforts have taken the lead of states, like Georgia and Texas, which have taken moderate steps that demonstrate you can reduce the prison population while simultaneously, if not consequentially, also reduce crime.

But at a time when people across the aisle have finally found some of the modest, yet promising, agreement that we need to fix our broken system, the Trump administration and Attorney General Sessions have thus far indicated that they want to double down on the failed policies of the past. Sessions seems intent on turning back the clock—threatening to increase the use of mandatory minimum sentences, criticizing consent decrees that improve police-community relations, and expanding federal use of private prisons.

For the sake of our safety, our economic health, and the values we profess, we can’t afford to go back. We must press forward with reforms.

We must continue to work together to fix our broken justice system, and we must remember that we all have a role to play—as federal lawmakers, state and local officials, community leaders, activists, advocates and citizens. We can change our broken and discriminatory system, and we must.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, civil rights advocate and writer Michelle Alexander reminds us that when it comes to our broken justice system—we have a choice:

“We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life.”

We must choose a different way. We all have an obligation to not just swear an oath that we are a nation of liberty and justice for all, but to fight, labor and sacrifice to ensure that we make those words real.