The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a new proposal paper, Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislatures. The agenda covers a wide range of issues within the federal and state justice systems. Several of the paper’s suggestions overlap with what we’re doing here at Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice. Specifically, the agenda calls for the federal government to allow the states decide their own marijuana laws and policies, which aligns with our longstanding commitment to federalism and ties directly to our commitment to rolling back unconstitutional overcriminalization. The paper also supports enabling police officers to divert individuals experiencing mental health crisis or drug-related problems to social services rather than take them to jail. This is a smart solution to what we call “self-defeating policing”: the policies and practices that may inflict harmful unintended consequences on communities without making them safer or providing for more personal security. In the same vein, we applaud Brennan’s call to courts to adjust civil fines on a person’s ability to pay. Civil remedies are generally superior to jail for minor offenses, but to the poor, fines and fees can become onerous new burdens that effectively criminalize poverty.
Of course, there are some proposals in the Brennan agenda where we would take a more limited government approach, such as not replacing federal subsidies that encourage mass incarceration with new federal subsidies to go in another direction, but these should not detract from the opportunities papers like this one present to the broader criminal justice community. Criminal justice reform remains among the most promising bipartisan efforts to improve society and increase individual liberty throughout the country.