The current American criminal justice system has four key components: arrest, prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration.


On September 15, 2020, the Brennan Center released a report (“BC Report”) titled, “Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings: How Involvement With The Criminal Justice System Deepens Inequality.” That BC Report cited FBI statistics, which show that at least 70 million Americans have a criminal record of some kind, meaning they have an arrest for some criminal offense, misdemeanor, or felony.


Lost Earning from Incarceration, Criminal History Cripples Communities


The BC Report also shockingly found that in 2017, 7.7 million Americans had been incarcerated in the nation’s prison system; 12.1 million Americans convicted of felonies but not imprisoned, and 46.8 million Americans convicted of misdemeanors but not jailed. The total lost annual earnings of these Americans due to either imprisonment or conviction was $372.3 billion, according to the BC Report.


In May of 2018, a report by the U.S. Justice Department found that roughly 68 percent of people released from state and federal prisons will be rearrested within three years of release, 79 percent within six years of release, and 83 percent within nine years of release.


In July 2020, the American Action Forum released a report (“AAF Report”), titled “The Economic Costs of the U.S. Criminal Justice System.” The AAF Report made four key findings:


  • The United States spends nearly $300 billion annually to police communities and incarcerate 2.2 million people.
  • The societal costs of incarceration—lost earnings, adverse health effects, and the damage to the families of the incarcerated—are estimated at up to three times the direct costs, bringing the total burden of our criminal justice system to $1.2 trillion.
  • This expense’s outcomes are only a marginal reduction in crime, reduced earnings for the convicted, and a high likelihood of formerly incarcerated individuals returning to prison.
  • The value citizens place on the small increases in deterrence is difficult to quantify, but it must be substantial to merit incurring the measured costs.


Criminal Justice System Urgently Needs Reform


This scatter-gun of information offered by these three reports illustrates the American criminal justice system’s remarkable failure and the urgent, compelling need to reform it. The following cases underscore the failure of criminal justice in this country actually and demand reform of the system that dispenses it:


  • Richard DeLisi: A Florida inmate who is the longest serving marijuana offender in the nation. He has spent more than 30 years in prison. DeLisi was sentenced to 90 years in 1989 for attempting to traffic more than 100 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. from Jamaica. He could be released next month because of the Covid-19 pandemic. He is now 71 years of age.
  • Fair Wayne Bryant: An African-American Louisiana inmate convicted in 1997 for stealing a pair of hedge clippers from a white man and given a life sentence without the benefit of parole under the state’s “habitual offender” statute. . Bryant’s life sentence was upheld by five white male justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court in July 2020. Eighty percent of Louisiana inmates serving a habitual offender life sentence are African-Americans.
  • Derek Harris: An African-American Louisiana inmate convicted in 2008 for selling .69 grams of marijuana valued at less than $30 to an undercover police officer. He was also given a life sentence under the state’s habitual offender statute. He was freed from prison this past August after the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed his life sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
  • Alvin Kennard: An African-American man who spent 36 years in the Alabama prison system for stealing $50.75 when he was 22 years old, was also convicted under a habitual offender statute. He was released from prison in August 2019.
  • Jerry Hartfield: A Texas man who spent 35 years in prison without a trial after his original conviction and death sentence was vacated in 1980 by a state appeals court because of flaws in the jury selection process. He was released from prison in 2017 after Texas prosecutors could not muster enough evidence to retry the man following a 35-year delay.


Life Sentences Without Parole and Habitual Offender Law Need Reform


In a September 2019 post, we reported the following:


“Justice is not only sometimes blind but the system that dispenses this underpinning of our Democratic society is more often than not cruel and unusual.


“As of 2017, the Sentencing Project reported that there were nearly 162,000 people in the U.S. prison system serving life sentences—a surging all-time high. More than 44,000 of these individuals are serving what is known as “LWOP” (life without parole) life sentences—sentences that do not allow for parole under any circumstances and offer only a minuscule hope for executive clemency.


“It is nothing short of stunning that one in every seven U.S. inmates are serving life sentences—roughly 12,000 of whom were convicted as juveniles. Nearly 3300 of the LWOP lifers were convicted for non-violent offenses, like stealing a $150 jacket.”


The above five cases, and the staggering number of people convicted and sentenced to life without parole for non-violent offenses, should be one of the first areas—if not the first—where reforms should be undertaken. Habitual offender laws and virtual life sentences as the one imposed on Richard DeLisi serve no legitimate penological purpose other than to punish for the sake of punishing.


Pressure on Biden to Deliver on Campaign Promises


The incoming Biden presidential administration has promised to deal with the social demands for criminal justice reforms, especially those being advocated by the communities most affected by overcriminalization and incarceration.


Harsh sentencing and useless incarceration should top the list.