The Year in Review: Ten Highlights (or Low Lights) in the Criminal Justice World

Criminal Justice WorldWith 2015 rapidly slipping away, it’s time to take stock of where we are in the never-ending fight to put just a little more justice into the American criminal justice system. This is a very crude accounting offered by just one person. I urge you to do the exercise for yourself. It’s easier to keep our eyes on the prize when we are also clear-sighted about the hits and misses we experience in real time.

Since these year-enders usually highlight ten trends or ten stories, I’m serving up just ten highlights/lowlights for the year in criminal justice.

1. A potent new discourse about mass criminalization. The new clarity and new intensity are the gifts of the insurgent youth-led movement—a movement that has many nodes and networks but that is best known nationally as #BlackLivesMatter—against abusive policing and the lame prosecution of the abusers. This most welcome movement is exposing horrors that have been hiding in plain sight all these years: the almost total absence of transparency and accountability in regard to police practices, the buddy system between police and prosecutors that lets sworn peace officers who torture and murder Black and brown bodies get away with it 99% of the time.

2. The failure of the attempted pushback against #BlackLivesMatter. Also noteworthy this year is how the efforts by the likes of Bill Bratton and Rahm Emanuel to push back against the new discourse has misfired. Their line, of course, is that heavy urban law enforcement is all about protecting Blacks who are menaced by other Blacks. But the line runs right up against the reality that, insofar as places like West Baltimore and Chicago’s South Side can be considered war zones, that situation is equally the hellish work of accumulated white power and toxic racism.

President Obama’s moves to date have been somewhat hesitant and tepid; we hope he will use his last year in office to step it up significantly.

3. White House & Congressional attention to criminal justice. It’s now been five years since the publication of Michelle Alexander’s pathbreaking New Jim Crow book. And the national stirring that has grown under the book’s influence is now being felt in the capital’s corridors of power. Unfortunately, the president’s moves to date have been somewhat hesitant and tepid; we hope he will use his last year in office to step it up significantly. As for the much-heralded “left-right” coalition on CJ reforms, this observer remains skeptical. I thought it was telling that the Koch Brothers and their allies used a federal CJ reform package to push through a provision to insulate corporate criminals from prosecution.

4. The Pope’s visit to a Pennsylvania prison. It’s a big deal when the leader of the religion professed by a fifth of the world population does the Jesus-like thing of telling a group of incarcerated people that he takes hope fromthem and that he sees God in their faces.

5. California continuing to lead on reform. The legislative year in Sacramento gave CJ reformers yet more incremental gains. Unfortunately, the semi-secretive state agency that doles out the monies saved as the prisons shrink and as savings from Prop 47 begin to kick in—something called the Board of State and Community Corrections—really cannot be trusted to take community reinvestment seriously. Jail expansion and jail construction have been the BSCC’s favored programs, which is against the spirit if not the letter of many legislative reforms.

6. Prop 47 focus. We’re now through year one of Prop 47 with just two years remaining to change the records of tens of thousands of low-level offenders from felonies to misdemeanors—and to free those still in prison or jail who were convicted on one of the six offenses that is now a misdemeanor, thanks to 47. Here in LA County, we rejoice that our Board of Supervisors recently voted to make Prop 47 implementation a top priority—and put the necessary backing behind the new effort.

7. Supervisors find their mojo. The move on Prop 47 was only one of several significant and positive steps taken by the new progressive troika of county Board members: Sheila Kuehl, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Hilda Solis. The supes also broadened the application of AB 109 funds and empowered and funded an important new Office of Diversion and Reentry Support. As always, of course, we reformers watch closely and continue to press for more. We will see how the new super-agency headed by Mitch Katz actually (a consolidated Health Dept.) performs. We will wait to see whether a new leader can shake up the county’s hidebound and often ineffective Probation Dept. One area where the new Board remains far too timid is in its deferential attitude toward the Sheriff’s Dept.

8. Jim McDonnell’s disappointing performance. There’s no other way to say it. McDonnell is showing himself to be a standard-issue top cop, protecting his turf and his troops while letting the opening for real reform at his scandal-plagued agency slip away. The Sheriff’s unfounded shots against Prop 47 were an absolute disgrace.

9. Stalemate on civilian oversight. One area where McDonnell is certainly effective has been in blocking any truly independent civilian oversight of his vast and bloodstained Department. Here, again, the Supervisors yielded to McDonnell’s wishes in approving a deeply-flawed Memorandum of Understanding regarding how information about questionable incidents will be obtained by the Office of the Inspector General, which is meant to be the investigative arm of the yet-to-be-created oversight commission. In effect, the commission has been effectively emasculated even before it is constituted. One word: putrid.

10. LAPD misses the point on body cams. Finally, while we are still on the subject of abusive policing, what about the good old LAPD? Unbelievably, they want LA taxpayers to spend a small fortune on body cams and the personnel required to review the video, but the end result of collecting all this material will be to protect officers from proper public scrutiny. In fact, the public won’t have any access to the video unless the police chief authorizes it. Officers accused of misconduct will be allowed to view the video before submitting their own account of the incident, which in turn will enable them to avoid saying anything that could be contradicted by the video evidence.

peter-laarman-15Fortunately, this fight’s not quite over. Justice Not Jails and many other groups are joining the ACLU in an effort to at least slow down the body cam juggernaut. It’s our first order of .business for 2016.

Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.


  1. Dear Peter,

    My son was charged here in Montana with Adult crimes and then sentenced to 40 years DOC commit. This 13 year old did not murder or rape anyone. He has finally been released from incarceration after much mental anguish! I pray every day that this reform will continue and my son can begin to live his life!

  2. Kelli Poole says:

    This was a great recap Peter! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to a productive 2016!