WashU Expert: Senate Criminal Justice Reform Bill Falls Short of Needed Changes

Faculty; Policy; Social Work

A bipartisan group of United States senators announced Oct. 1 legislation that would overhaul the country’s criminal justice system, giving judges more leeway in sentencing and reducing sentences for some nonviolent offenders.

It’s a move in the right direction but the bill doesn’t go far enough, said an expert on criminal justice system reform at Washington University in St. Louis.

“While this is an incredibly positive step in the right direction of reforming our criminal justice system in ways that are humane, socially just, and promote public safety and well-being, it falls short of the extensive changes that are needed,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, assistant professor in the Brown School.

“If we want to overhaul our criminal justice system it will take much more than addressing just sentencing of nonviolent offenders,” said Pettus-Davis, noted national expert on criminal justice system reform and behavioral intervention development.

“This bill does little to achieve that goal, and in fact, increases sentences and mandatory minimums for some, including offenses related to domestic violence or firearms, while limiting sentences for others,” said Pettus-Davis, who directs the Smart Decarceration Initiative​ in the Brown School’s Center for Social Development and is founding director of the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice​.

“If we want to end mass incarceration and have incarceration rates similar with our peer countries around the world, we have to reduce our incarcerated population by 1 million people, according to Michael Jacobson, director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance,” Pettus-Davis said.

Pettus-Davis recently convened a national conference on prison decarceration, called “From Mass Incarceration to Effective and Sustainable Decarceration.​”

There are limitations in the bill that do not provide alternative adequate supports when people are diverted or removed from institutions, Pettus-Davis said.

“The bill does not authorize new spending on programming, but encourages people to go to rehabilitative programming,” she said. “Unfortunately, because we have spent so much on confining people over the past 45 years, our evidence base on effective rehabilitation programs is feeble. We simply have not committed the resources needed to develop high-quality and evidence-based programs.”

In fact, Pettus-Davis said, only 10 percent of prisoners with substance abuse treatment needs actually receive any treatment in prison.

“Therefore, there is a shortage of evidence-based programming, because we haven’t invested enough in developing and rigorously evaluating rehabilitative programming,” she said. “If we want people to be rehabilitated, we have to fund programming for them to go to and that programming needs an evidence-base of effectiveness.”