Striking the Balance: Sentencing and Public Safety in America

This panel highlighted the need to reform criminal sentencing laws. Arizona State University law professor Erik Luna began by discussing the history of mandatory minimum sentences in the United States, noting how major sentencing reforms begun in the 1970s and ’80s were based on a belief that disparities in sentencing were incredibly wide. This animating principle was overstated, though, according to Luna. He argued that the changes had the perverse effect of politicizing the process further, by transferring discretion regarding sentencing into the hands of prosecutors, who choose the particular crimes with which an individual will be charged.

Open Society Foundations senior policy analyst Nkechi Taifa noted how bipartisan coalitions on criminal justice policy have historically been quite destructive to our society, but mentioned the powerful potential for significant improvements to our legal system. She also noted how individuals can change over time, and how incarcerating individuals for upwards of 20 years may actually not have the intended impact on public safety.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, began her remarks by explaining the human impact of mandatory minimum sentences. Further, she said, mandatory minimums are not achieving their intended result. She spoke to a range of attempted reforms and, importantly, described a few successful ones that have actually brought needed change to our sentencing laws.

Stephen Walker, director of governmental affairs for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, noted how a “tough on crime” approach was not only increasingly being recognized as ineffective policy, it also worsened the working environment for law enforcement authorities. He spoke to how his office was out in front on the overcrowding issues in California prisons, and he acknowledged the significant need for reform to numerous aspects of our criminal justice system.

Charles Koch Institute external relations senior manager Ewan Watt moderated the panel and closed the conversation by noting how the panel had identified progress that has been made toward reforming mandatory minimum sentences as well as barriers to reform. To learn more about how you can get involved, please visit the Charles Koch Foundation’s Request for Proposals page.

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