What's at Stake

The Criminal Law Reform Project (CLRP) focuses its work on the “front end” of the criminal justice system—from policing to sentencing— seeking to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice, and stand in the way of a fair and equal society.

By fighting for nationwide reforms to police practices, indigent defense systems, disproportionate sentencing, and government abuses of authority in the name of fighting crime, and drug policies which have failed to achieve public safety and health while putting an unprecedented number of people behind bars, CLRP is working to reverse the tide of overincarceration, protect constitutional rights, eliminate racial disparities, and increase government accountability and transparency.

Current Issues

Reforming Police Practices

CLRP is at the forefront of demanding changes to the ways police departments interact with and enforce the law in poor communities and communities of color across the country. Residents in these communities are being forced to bear the devastating effects of law enforcement’s selective enforcement of low-level and drug offenses, as well as widespread use of excessive force, as demonstrated by the recent deaths of unarmed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, and many other people of color at the hands of police officers.

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Sentencing

There are 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States—triple the number of prisoners we had in 1987. Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. A leading cause has been the decisions by local, state, and federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe charges possible—often disregarding a person’s actual role in an offense—in large part as a bargaining tool to coerce people into accepting guilty pleas to less severe, if still incredibly harsh, sentences. Anyone who exercises their right to trial and is convicted is often punished to the fullest extent possible.

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Effective Counsel

For too many people in America, access to effective counsel is treated as a privilege for the few instead of a constitutional right guaranteed for all. CLRP is working to ensure each person accused of a crime has access to an attorney at every critical stage of criminal proceedings. Far too often, defendants are forced to appear at key hearings about probable cause or bail—or even to plea bargain or plead guilty—without the necessary legal guidance. By protecting and expanding the right to counsel, CLRP is helping to guarantee that states around the country ensure that people charged with crimes receive meaningful assistance of counsel.

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Drug Law Reform

The enforcement of marijuana laws generates some of the justice system’s starkest racial disparities. "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," a landmark report from the ACLU, details the staggering racial bias and financial waste of our country’s counterproductive fight against a drug widely considered less harmful than alcohol. In the United States, between 2001 and 2010, a black person was almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person was, despite approximately equal rates of use. In some states and counties, blacks were 8, 10, or even 15 times more likely to be arrested. In addition to its unfairness, the war on marijuana is a colossal waste of resources, with states spending billions of dollars and devoting thousands of hours of police work to it.

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Drug Testing

CLRP has confronted the disturbing trend of suspicionless drug testing for public benefits. The rise in drug testing requirements for welfare recipients is rooted in stereotypes of poor communities and communities of color that are entirely unsupported by research. Furthermore, these efforts, pushed in the name of fiscal responsibility, are often enormous wastes of public resources. In many locations, the costs of drug tests have outstripped the savings from the tiny percentage of welfare recipients removed from the rolls for positive tests.

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