Criminal Justice Reform In The U.S.

U.S. Criminal Justice System

I’ve been wanting to write something about the criminal justice system in the U.S. for quite some time now. It’s a lofty task as there is just so much information and statistics about it. But writing so often helps me organize what I already know and then I can more easily figure out where I want to go next. In this case, I’m hoping it will help me figure out how I want to get involved.

The Need for Criminal Justice Reform in the U.S.

A couple of weeks ago Brad and I went to hear Anthony Ray Hinton speak at Elizabethtown College. Anthony had been wrongfully convicted of two murders in Alabama in 1985 and spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row. It was Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded and is Executive Director of, that helped free Hinton in 2015. (Note: Bryan Stevenson is who the movie Just Mercy starring Michael B. Jordan is based on.) In 2018, Hinton wrote the book, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, that went on to be a New York Times bestseller. Now he speaks to groups about his story and the changes that need to be made in our criminal justice system to prevent similar injustices. I was really glad we attended the event and appreciated what he said but lamented as we walked home, that I wish they would’ve provided more concrete ways to get involved.

How My Interest in our Criminal Justice System Began

In the early 90’s I went to Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston to get a Master in Social Work (MSW). My first-year internship was at the nearby Cambridge Court Clinic. People were sent to the Clinic if they were arrested for a misdemeanor and there was suspicion that they had an untreated mental illness that had spurred their crime. At the Clinic they were evaluated and then treated if need be. A report was written and read by the judge at their court hearing. The Clinic was comprised of Psychiatrists, Psychologists, PsyDs, and MSWs. Not only did I learn a lot about mental health in general, it is also where I began to learn about our legal system. I learned it can be a very scary, intimidating and confusing system.

Around that same time, Massachusetts voted in a Republican Governor who was considering reinstating the death penalty. My social policy professor at Simmons was asked to lead a task force to research and write a report on the death penalty, I think largely the economics of it. He asked a few students to work on the project with him over the summer and I was one of them. My area to research was on the discrimination factor. I never saw the finished report and maybe I could find it somewhere with some effort but many facts stayed with me. There was a lot written about -case after case- the death penalty and how there was not fair representation. For example, if you were black and poor you were much more likely to end up on death row. Capital cases were much more complicated to try in court and if you didn’t have the means for a good lawyer and were assigned a public defender who more than likely was already stretched too thin and hadn’t defended a capital case before, you definitely didn’t get a fair trial. Those facts didn’t even take into account being wrongfully accused in the first place depending on your skin color. Another thing that stayed with me is the exorbitant cost of someone being on death row. Largely due to all the legal fees and costs of appeals which can drag on for years, someone being jailed for 40 years was much less expensive than for someone on death row. Note: Massachusetts did not reinstate the death penalty.

Also at that time, a book entitled Dead Man Walking was published. Based on a true story in Louisiana, it was about a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who is asked to be a pen pal to a death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier. As Sister Prejean grows to know Sonnier, she becomes increasingly disturbed by the inhumane conditions of his confinement along with the moral struggles of the public officials –the governor, the head of the Department of Corrections, wardens, guards –who have to carry out killings that the law demands but that they do not personally believe in. I had friends from high school who were working in DC and got to know Sister Helen Prejean. For my birthday that summer they sent me a copy of her book and she signed it, “To Donna, a special peacemaker. Best wishes, Helen Prejean.” It is one of my most cherished possessions to this day. The book was timely as she did a lot of research and sited the studies which I was then able to use in my work that summer. And as many of you know, if you’re old enough, a year or two later the book was turned into a movie by the same name where Susan Sarandon played Sister Prejean and won an Oscar for her role. Sean Penn played Patrick Sonnier and received an Oscar nomination.

How to Learn More and Get Involved

Back to Anthony Ray Hinton’s talk and how I left wishing they would’ve given more direct instruction on how one can get involved. I did a little research and there are many organizations doing work on this. It seems many are most appreciative of donations of money but I haven’t checked all of them out. I mentioned the Equal Justice Initiative above. There’s also the Innocence Project that has done a lot of good work freeing and exonerating innocent prisoners, stopping multiple executions, helping pass state and federal laws, and strengthening forensic practices. There’s also the Brennan Center for Justice that works to reform our system of democracy and justice. The list goes on… literally

I am going to stop here even though I’ve only scratched the surface. I realize I mostly wrote about the injustices of the death penalty. There are so many other aspects of our justice system that are disturbing. For example, there’s been a lot in the news lately about the lengthy and unfair stays of people who have been accused of a crime and awaiting their trial dates. I saw that in New York their wait time can be years. Maybe I’ll do a little more reading on that next…

I sure would love to hear if any of you are involved or have ideas. Thanks for reading.

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