Op-ed: Justice reform is making real progress in Utah and elsewhere

First Published Jan 26 2017 07:51PM      Last Updated Jan 26 2017 07:51 pm

Across the country, steady progress is being made reforming our criminal justice system, from the one that locks up more people than any other system in the world to one that more effectively avoids the need to do so.

Reform efforts fall in three categories: 1) helping people avoid criminal activity in the first place, 2) changing convicted offenders' behavior that led to antisocial activity, and 3) smoothing community re-entry for people who have served their time. We've made progress made in all three areas, with much yet to be done.

Over the last few decades, America became more punitive, incarcerating more and more people (think mandatory sentencing, three strikes, etc.). More recently, we've changed laws and sentencing requirements to alleviate the strains mass incarceration has put on our society.

For example, 26 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use, seven for recreational use. There is a growing common sense that we should stop punishing people harshly for crimes that aren't harsh.

Help is also emerging slowly for people with mental health challenges who are greatly overrepresented in our criminal justice system. Congress has passed mental health parity laws, requiring health insurance to cover mental health treatment in the same way that medical/surgical care is covered. The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) incorporated coverage for substance use disorder treatment as well as general mental health care, and the ACA also extended MHPAEA to include individual and small group plans, as well as Medicaid. These are moves in the right directions, but evidence of resulting improvements is yet elusive.

We're slowly recognizing that treating prisoners well, and with respect, improves the chances these individuals will return to society successfully. There is good evidence for this from countries like Germany and Norway, and the obvious positive outcomes are starting to influence our usually punitive approach in the United States, too.

For example, the U.S. Department of Justice granted $2.2 million to the Vera Institute of Justice to continue and expand its Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative to reduce prisons' use of solitary confinement as punishment. We are learning that inhumane prison conditions make hardened, anti-social criminals from people who were only jailed for lesser crimes. Prison programs to address the mental health of prisoners are slowly progressing, too, although much too slowly.

Notable progress in returning former prisoners to our shared communities is helping to break a vicious cycle. A criminal record follows an individual everywhere, and communities make it hard for criminals to live there. Re-entry failure most often results in desperation — and a desperate return to criminal activity.

That is why it is important to remove barriers to re-entry, and our progress deserves praise. We've reduced housing discrimination against people with recent criminal records by dismantling "Good Landlord" Programs, wherein a landlord receives discounted city service fees if he agrees to deny housing to people with criminal histories.

Nationwide, over 150 cities and counties have moved to "Ban the Box," which eliminates that looming checkbox on job applications for people with a criminal conviction. This helps employers consider a job candidate's qualifications first, rather than the stigma of a criminal history.

People are mobilizing all over the country to improve our criminal justice system, both locally and nationally. Here in Utah, for example, there is a Faith in Reform summit on January 28, in which people from faith and civic communities will be collaborating on best practices and strategies for improvement.

We will be a better country with continued progress toward true criminal justice reform in the years ahead.

Kendall Robins lives and works in Sandy.

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