Back to News & Commentary

Confronting the Other "Third Rail" of Politics — Criminal Justice Reform

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
Share This Page
November 7, 2008

While Social Security is often described as the “third rail” of politics, the same term could easily apply to policies that seek to reform our nation’s criminal justice system.

Whether out of fear of being labeled as “soft on crime” or a genuine belief that we can arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem, elected officials are often more than happy not to have to deal with reforms to our criminal justice system, despite the many systemic problems that plague it.

This is why I was so excited to see the release this week of “Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress.” This transition guide for the Obama administration and the 111th Congress lays out in great detail all of the reforms, both major and minor, that should be undertaken to have a criminal justice system that protects public safety, but also honors our commitments to fairness and equality under the law for all. A coalition of more than 20 organizations (including the ACLU) comprised the 2009 Criminal Justice Transition Coalition that compiled these excellent, workable recommendations.

The introduction ends with a prescient reminder that during these very challenging economic times, there are critical cost savings that can come from reforming a system that incarcerates 2.3 million people (that’s more than 1 out of every 100 adults in the U.S.) at a staggering cost of more than $60 billion per year.

At a time when the nation is facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is essential to review the cost of the criminal justice system to all Americans. Such a review should not only account for the cost in terms of dollars and cents, but also in terms of human lives and capital, which are our nation’s most valuable resource.

Those who care about reforming our criminal justice system (and if you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you do) have reason to be hopeful. The Obama/Biden transition team has included numerous criminal justice reforms to their civil rights agenda, including ending the shameful and racially discriminatory 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. It will be up to all of us to hold them to their promises and provide the popular will for reform. I know we have it in us!

Also, I would encourage everyone who hasn’t to check out the ACLU’s transition agenda — Actions for Restoring America. There are great recommendations on the entire range of ACLU issues. Needless to say, we will be very busy over the coming weeks and months.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page