Monday, January 16, 2006

Berman: Is criminal justice reform 'the next civil rights movement'?

Doc Berman opines that MLK, were he alive today, would be focused on criminal justice reform. He asks, "Should criminal justice reform be the next civil rights movement?"

I'd say 'yes,' and argue that it's been heading that way for a long time, at least from my vantage point. Since 2001 in Texas, ACLU, NAACP and LULAC have
collaborated to promote a joint criminal justice reform agenda at the Texas Lege, with successes including passing Texas' racial profiling law, several pieces of Tulia-related reform legislation, and requiring judges to sentence first-time, low-level drug offenders to probation and treatment instead of prison. Criminal justice reform topped the legislative agenda of the Texas NAACP in 2005 (see their President's report on the 79th Lege session [word doc]). Here were the top criminal justice items listed on Texas NAACP's formal lege agenda last year:
  • Sentencing Reform (especially for drug laws)
  • Police Accountability
  • Strengthening Community Supervision
  • Reforming the Death Penalty
  • 'Shore up' Texas' Racial Profiling Law
  • Improve Indigent Defense
  • Prevent Wrongful Convictions

For Grits readers that list sounds almost like a broken record. Similarly, this
LULAC public policy brief (pdf) advocating "pro-family" criminal justice reforms (described in this Grits post) was quite influential during the 79th Texas legislative session as lawmakers considered strengthening the probation system. Indeed, along with school finance and redistricting, criminal justice reform has been a primary focus of Texas' major civil rights groups since the turn of the century.

That's why I'd say, empirically, criminal justice is already a major focus at least of Texas' civil rights movement. But I'd add this caveat: for Latinos, immigration reform must also be "the next" civil rights movement, and we all should join them -- it's not really a choice, the matter will be thrust upon them, IMO. Immigration and criminal justice are closely related, especially since illegal immigration is prosecuted formally as a crime in US courts. In Texas detainees are spurring a statewide overincarceration crisis and temporary jail-building bubble. Criminal justice reform should be, hell, it is the next phase of the civil rights movement. But it has to include everybody.

Happy MLK Day, folks.


Anonymous said...

Right on Scott. Criminal Justice issues are the most important civil rights issues of our day. Thanks for continually bringing this up.


Anonymous said...

This goes back to what I had mentioned in an earlier comment: what constitutes an offense worthy of incarceration...and what doesn't? Indeed, what constitutes an 'offense', for that matter? For example, how many of our laws reflect the "Us vs. Them" philospohy upon which drug prohibition was founded? It can be argued that such laws were aimed at racial and ethnic groups seen by the socially dominant one as being both culturally unassimilable and endemically criminal and therefore in need of monitoring and control...but who made such a determination? Answering that question will go a long ways towards real reform...but those who will have their basic prejudices challenged publicly by such scrutiny will not long suffer it.