At a time of intense political polarization, when even the ability to pass budgets to keep the government running is in doubt, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are coalescing around criminal justice reform.
A wave of bills with Republican support seek to curb long-term solitary confinement, scrap mandatory minimum sentences, reduce incarceration for juveniles, and make it easier for people to get a job after prison.
All these efforts focus on improving what happens to people after they are prosecuted and sentenced to prison. But this week, a group of Democrats in the House and Senate offered a new set of bills aimed at reducing vast numbers of people from being arrested in the first place.
Over in the Senate, Chris Murphy (D-CT) is taking aim at the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
With Congress currently debating the controversial Bush-era education law “No Child Left Behind,” Murphy plans to introduce amendments that push schools to get rid of the “zero tolerance” discipline model that suspends and even arrests students for behaviors as minor as talking back to a teacher or violating the dress code.
“There are things we can do to say, ‘Enough is enough,'” Murphy said. “We can’t put kids on a steep descent into the criminal justice system before their 16th birthday.”
The Justice Department has found that such policies disproportionately target students of color and students with disabilities, and not only hurt them academically but drastically increase their chances of incarceration later in life.
Murphy said he’ll back bills like The Supportive School Climate Act that train and support school officials who focus on rewarding positive behavior more than punishing infractions, and work to reduce the number of cops patrolling inside school campuses. “If you treat kids like delinquents they will act like delinquents,” he said Thursday. “If you treat them like human beings, like students, they will rise to that expectation and change their behavior as well.”
Murphy cited the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut as a success story, noting that the school district took all the cops they had patrolling inside campuses and stationed them outside the schools — so they were able to respond to a true emergency but were not involved in disciplining students for minor rule-breaking. As a result, suspensions and arrests dramatically declined.
Efforts to put the police in check are also developing in the House. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who has lived for decades in inner-city Baltimore, said at a DC conference Thursday that Congress must act on behalf of communities of color that are “reeling” and “devastated” by over-policing, including the recent police killings of unarmed African American men.
“I have a chance to see policing up front and personal,” he said. “I’ve seen young men just waiting for a bus with their girlfriends, going to see a movie or something, and police come up and tell them to drop their pants, in the middle of the day. Every day this happens to African Americans, and the racial disparities are fueling mistrust and fear.”
This week, Cummings and other Democrats introduced bills in the House and Senate to give police departments across the country grants to purchase body-worn cameras.
Though body cameras have been found to reduce police violence and misconduct in some jurisdictions, many problems have already surfaced. Some departments have tried to prevent the public from accessing the footage, while others have developed a pattern of failing to wear or turn on the cameras when using force against residents. Many have also noted that having clear footage of police choking Eric Gardner to death in Staten Island, New York did not help secure an indictment.
Despite these shortcomings, Cummings called his bill “exactly the kind of public accountability we need to carry out effective criminal justice policy.” He also promised that the Republican-controlled House Oversight Committee he serves on will soon hold hearings on criminal justice reform.