Expert panel discussed needed criminal justice reforms Twitter
By Stephen Wilson
If asked whether you support human trafficking, you’d probably shake your head in adamant disgust. But if asked whether you eat chocolate, your head, like most, would nod in affirmation. Sadly, these questions are linked, according to Victor Williams from the Department of Homeland Security in the Human Trafficking Group.
He asked Lafayette students these questions only to reveal that most of the cocoa beans in West Africa are picked by child slaves who have been bought or abducted. His point: Unless you are eating fair trade chocolate, or more broadly educating yourself, you are part of the problem and don’t even know it.
Williams was a guest for a Criminal Justice Reform Week panel that also included Justin Harlan, who works in Reentry Services for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Assistant Professor Kurt Fowler from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, and Meyner Professor of Government and Public Service John Kincaid, who serves as director of the Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government.
These experts shared answers to pertinent questions that shape many social justice issues around the criminal justice system.
Do “stop and frisk” practices reduce crime rates?
In the case Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court concluded it was reasonable for the police to stop a person, ask questions, and pat the person down, which could escalate into a search. The approach was implemented in New York City along with a federal mandate that a police officer must fill out a UF250 form that includes a reason for stopping a person. Between 2014 and 2017 there were 3.2 million stops, so we have had lots of stops and have a lot of data. When looking at the reason for the stop, a popular answer is furtive movement—any shifty, stealthy, or hidden movement. Another popular answer is “fits a description.” But when looking at the forms, the suspects were people of color (80-90 percent) in a community of color. It is clear that the stop and frisk interaction is focused on one group of people. Some ask if it is effective. 90 percent of the stops resulted in nothing, so it seems fairly useless. Policies are supposed to be universally applied, but this was being applied only to one group. It is not evenly distributed. It began to have the opposite effect. In these communities where there were more stops, there were also more complaints about targeting and unnecessary stops. Trust in the police erodes. Belief that the police are helpful also erodes. The damage outpaces the handful of effective stops.
What are the systematic issues between sex workers and the criminal justice system?
Policies target them. When policies are formed or reformed, those who will be impacted most usually play a role in shaping the policy. But these policies were constructed without input from them. Sex workers are unable to access needed services like education, health, and police, so they must find ways to address problems, often relying on underground mechanisms. Rather than asking them what their needs are, we are instead making policies more about their behaviors and actions.
How does human trafficking tie back to the criminal justice system?
When we hear the word “prostitute:, nine times out of 10, we will assume she is in that line of work because of a choice she made. We don’t see how prostitutes have been groomed or exploited because they have no place to go or work or live. How it started at home—a traumatic experience like abuse or molestation. That unresolved issue creates a vulnerability and weakness that a trafficker exploits. Rather than seeing a victim, we see people making a choice. We lack the empathy to see inside their heads, to recognize the thinking that says, “If I don’t do this, then I won’t get drugs or my family will be hurt or I will get beaten.” When the police intervene, the worker goes to jail, not the John, not the trafficker. And if the worker is under the age of 18, the worker is a victim by definition of the law. Why arrest those kids? We either don’t understand the law or see workers through our distorted perspective. The criminal justice system is part of it. Law enforcement doesn’t understand it or get trained for it. We reproach the worker instead of addressing the people who create the market.
How might we eliminate human trafficking in the U.S.?
We must educate people. This issue will not be resolved in our lifetime. We can’t begin to resolve it until we understand it and recognize our responsibility in it. 68 percent of trafficking is labor. It soon will be the No. 1 crime in the world. If you eat chocolate and it does not say fair trade on the label, a stolen child in West Africa picked that cocoa bean. If we don’t know the sources, then we are all part of the problem. We must adopt a victim-centered approach. We must understand what causes and sustains it. When we do, it is life-altering, changing what you think people are like. So when you see a sex worker, don’t think it’s the world’s oldest profession. Think instead we are the world’s oldest customer. We cause it—if no customers, then no profession.
How will the merger of state prison and parole department impact the system?
We have been navigating multiple sets of instructions. With a consolidated command, we will have one set of policies and procedures. Along the way, there have been updates as they take a consolidated look. Another new approach is called Beta-Gov, where you can submit ideas on cost savings and use trials to see what works. They have completed projects on solitary confinement and are now doing one on community-based approaches.
What programs does the system provide as inmates exit?
There are several programs, both inside and outside the prison, that weren’t offered even a few years ago. We are moving in the right direction. Inside inmates have access to alcohol and drug counseling, which can be inpatient and outpatient if dual-diagnosed with mental health issues. There is a new opioid addiction program and some other standard offerings like groups for domestic abuse and trauma. Outside, many of these same services are available with the only difference being they are replicated and offered by contractors. When outside the focus shifts to workforce development. Finally, we help with housing, funding six months of rent as a means to help keep a person’s focus on other aspects of reintegration.
Is the federal approach one of cooperation or coercion?
Since 1968, federal criminal-justice policy has moved mostly in a punitive “get-tough-on-crime” direction both in terms of federal aid to the states and federal criminal laws. Only in the last few years have both parties signaled a willingness to back away from this tough “lock ’em-up” stance.
For example, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 gave $9 billion to states that enacted laws to increase prison sentences. The grant no longer exists, but the federal government sent about $8.4 billion to the states in 2016 using crime-reduction metrics that emphasize arrests and imprisonment.
This has shifted with the “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act” that would send federal money only to states that: (1) reduce their prison population by 7 percent over three years and (2) reduce or stabilize crime rates.
During the past 30 years, Congress has enacted more than 100 laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences, and the federal prison population has grown sevenfold. Federal prison spending grew by more than 500 percent between 1980 and 2013, increasing from 14 to 23 percent of the Justice Department’s budget. The creation of federal mandatory minimum sentences is an important reason why the average federal prison stay more than doubled between 1988 and 2012. To help with this, Congress could pass the proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
Another issue is the federalization or nationalization of criminal law. Criminal law has historically been a state responsibility. As Thomas Jefferson noted in 1798, the U.S. Constitution mentions only four federal criminal offenses. The number of federal criminal laws is unknown, but an estimate about 10 years ago put the number at 4,500.
What about criminal justice issues in our local area?
We have had several cases. In Hunterdon Township, N.J., guards assaulted female inmates. Northampton County is in need of a new prison. It holds a little over 800 inmates and was built in 1871. While there have been several additions and expansions over the years, plans to build a new prison were put on hold after the election of a new county executive. There are a growing number of drug busts in Easton as the drug problem grows. Finally, dollars are needed to reduce recidivism and improve crime victims’ services.