Justice System Reform

From law enforcement to the courts to prisons and beyond — our criminal justice system is far from perfect. Take, for example, research analyzing 14 years of traffic stops in North Carolina. It discovered that Black drivers were 63 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, despite driving 16 percent less. What’s more, Black drivers were 115 percent more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than whites. Additional research shows that Blacks are sent to prison at five times the rate as their white counterparts for drug-related offenses — still too high despite a dramatic drop from the rate in 2000 of 15 times.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the inequities in our justice system. Across the country, the outcry for police reform during the summer of 2020 revealed a “trust gap” for law enforcement among members of the Black and brown communities. The U.S. Constitution demands equal treatment for all people, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. But for many Americans, the reality is far from what those laws guarantee.

Finding Common Ground wants to change that. We support laws and programs that keep communities safe while meting out justice in a way that’s fair, equitable and humane. Among the ideas we support:

Decriminalize poverty

No, it’s technically not a crime to be poor. But if you look at many low-level criminal offenses, you’ll see that it might as well be: The chronically poor are fined or sent to “debtor’s prison” for failing to pay their bills. People who receive public assistance can be fined for or charged with making mistakes on their tax forms. People who can’t afford maintenance for their cars are fined for driving cars with improper equipment. And on and on it goes.

We advocate for the reduction — or even the elimination — of criminal offenses that pose no public safety threat. This might involve alternatives to incarceration for people who commit crimes with low rates of recidivism. Prison should be reserved for those who truly need to be kept away from society, not those who can’t afford basic necessities.

Decriminalize low-level drug offenses

Our state and federal penitentiaries are packed with nearly 2.3 million prisoners, many of whom were incarcerated for small-time drug offenses, such as possession of marijuana for personal use or low-level drug sales. Nonviolent offenders with no previous arrest records not only clog up the system, but leave their imprisonment with criminal records, making it harder for them to find jobs and housing.

Dangerous people belong behind bars. But given the inequities that plague our criminal justice system, we must find alternatives to locking up people who pose no threat to society. Half-way houses and drug treatment centers deserve more resources from the public and private sectors.

Today, many prisons are managed by private companies, making it more of a business than a source of rehabilitation. Some people exit the prison system more prone to commit violent acts than when they entered. And given that more than 650,000 prisoners are released back into society each year, that is a risk we can no longer take.

Rethink mandatory-minimum sentences

Congress has the power to set sentences for drug crimes — along with certain offenses and determines the least amount of time an offender will serve for those crimes. The practical effect of these mandatory-minimum sentences is that judges can’t take extenuating circumstances into effect during sentencing, nor can they consider an offender’s lack of previous convictions. This can result in first-time offenders serving decades in prison for non-violent crimes — particularly if the offense in question is his or her “third strike.”

Research shows that mandatory-minimum sentences disproportionately affect minorities: In 2015, more than 70 percent of people who received such sentences were Black or Latino.

We urge Congress to revisit mandatory-minimum sentences, which research has shown to have a greater impact on mass incarceration than on public safety. Consider this sobering statistic: There are as many Americans in prison right now as there are Americans with college degrees.

Other ideas we endorse:

  • Eliminating some of the 45,000 laws that impact people released from prison — laws that restrict employment, housing, education and even voting. People who commit crimes must be held accountable, but once they’ve served their time, they should be afforded a second chance.

  • Increasing funding for education and job training programs inside prisons.

  • Offering financial incentives in the form of tax breaks to businesses willing to hire workers with criminal backgrounds. Today, one in three Americans has a criminal record, which means that for many companies, hiring ex-convicts is essential to fill jobs.

Finding Common Ground

Residents of Guilford County and beyond deserve to feel safe and protected in their communities. But we must ensure our criminal justice system, which provides that safety and protection, treats all people equally.