Is Criminal Justice Reform a Possibility in 2016?

Following on the heels of an active December that saw Congress avoid a government shutdown, extend tax breaks for Americans and pass education reform, there is hope that President Obama and Congress will carry this unexpected span of bipartisanship into 2016. Although impossible to know with certainty which issues will be tackled, criminal justice reform could be on the list.  

The president and lawmakers alike have called for criminal justice reform. “I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform,” President Obama said during his final State of the Union speech on Jan. 12. “We just might surprise the cynics again.”

According to the White House, nearly 1 in 3 Americans of working age have criminal records, with more than 2 million people currently in jail, which is nearly a quarter of the world’s inmates. At the end of 2015, the president listed several reforms that he would like to take place in the coming months.

  • Banning the Box: Obama called on Congress to “ban the box” on federal job applications that request disclosure of an applicant’s criminal record. Touting certain private sector companies that have already taken these steps, Obama also praised the 19 states that have taken similar actions.

  • New Grants: The Corporation for National and Community Service and the U.S. Department of Justice announced in Oct. new grants aimed at enrolling at-risk youth in national service projects. These grants will allow AmeriCorps members to serve in four states--Maine, Maryland, New York and Texas.

  • Incarcerated Veterans: The U. S. Department of Labor announced in Sept. $1.5 million in grants that will go towards providing referral and counselling services for veterans—who are at risk of becoming homeless—to find meaningful employment. There are a total of seven grants estimated to help 650 veterans retain housing in six states.

The president has outlined new initiatives for criminal justice reform and urged Congress to get involved and pass bipartisan legislation that would make reform more permanent.

Congress responded quickly. The same day the president gave his State of the Union speech, Congress acted on two criminal justice bills. As part of the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative, committee members approved by voice vote the Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2015 and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015.

The Second Chance Reauthorization Act provides state and local governments and community-based organizations with the resources needed to improve success rates for people released from prison and jail. This legislation builds on the original Second Chance Act of 2008 and continues a variety of programs authorized under the act, such as mentoring, substance abuse treatment and family-based programming. It also expands current correctional education and employment initiatives, increases the number of grant programs available for nonprofits, and promotes increased accountability.

The Comprehensive Justice bill reauthorizes and updates the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004. Each year, more than 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are booked into jails, as well as millions more coping with less serious mental illnesses. In order to better treat those with mental health conditions, the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015 aims to improve responses to people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system by supporting and enhancing law enforcement training, mental health and veterans treatment courts, resources for corrections systems, and other collaborative approaches that promote public safety and community health. A companion bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Dec. 10, 2015.

Reentry work and other criminal justice initiatives funded through the Second Chance Reauthorization Act and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act are priorities for the CSG Justice Center, which has played a pivotal role in bridging the partisan divide to create effective data-driven, practical solutions to public safety and cross-system problems. More on their work can be found here.

The president will need Congressional legislation to pass any real reforms that will improve America’s criminal justice system. Although there are disagreements on both sides of the aisle, there appears to be much overlap in what is being advocated. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin recently told POLITICO, “I think criminal justice reform is probably the biggest [issue] we can make a difference on…There’s a real way forward on that.”