by David Steingraber, Senior Policy Adviser at the National Criminal Justice Association, former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, former Administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement Services, and former Chief of the Menomonee Falls, Wis. and Middleton, Wis. Police Departments
The “perfect storm” has come to mean the convergence of two or more forces to create a larger force which is greater than the sum of its parts. Such is the case with criminal justice reform. The politics of criminal justice reform has always been an impediment to true reform. The forces of law and order have always collided with well-meaning “do-gooders” to cancel any real momentum for reform. Dramatic headline grabbing crimes and a statistical increase in crime rates have prompted knee-jerk get tough on crime responses at both local precincts and state houses across the country.
What has changed today is that our criminal justice system has come under scrutiny from both the left and the right. Not only have the deplorable conditions in many of our prisons with overcrowding being a major contributing factor been cause for concern, but concern has also been prompted by the extremely high cost of maintaining prisons to say nothing of the cost of new prison construction anticipated to house a growing number of inmates.
Progressive and social reformers continue to rail against the ineffectiveness and inhumanity of our over-reliance on incarceration. Conservatives have awakened to the impact of the high cost of the prison system. This impact is particularly harsh at the state level which is the primary locus of our criminal justice system. There is also concern at the federal level where the federal justice system has intervened to attempt to quash the national drug abuse epidemic.
For the first time in memory, these two forces are willing to sit down and discuss a pathway to criminal justice reform that is less reliant on what is now seen as a costly and often ineffective response to crime. The reward for both sides is compelling. Each side sees the clear benefit of spending less on prisons and achieving a more effective response to criminal behavior.