A Criminal Justice Reform Partner in the Senate?

In August 2013, Cory Booker, candidate for the United States Senate from New Jersey (and the presumptive winner in a state that has not elected a Republican to the Senate in decades), made the bold announcement to run on a criminal justice reform platform. In an obvious signal that he is spending his considerable political capital on what up to now has been a losing issue, Booker released a 16-page document outlining his plan–a laundry list of policy recommendations that hits on every phase of the justice continuum.
Booker pulls no stops in the report. He sounds off on all the familiar complaints on both the left and the right about our broken system. On efficiency he notes—“We waste massive amounts of money on strategies that make our communities less, not more, safe. “ On the impact of mass incarceration on families and communities—“Not only do they lose their incarcerated parent’s income and other direct support, but innocent children who have one or both of their parents in prison also suffer trauma, social stigma, and destruction of their familial relationships.” And on racial disparities—“Today, 1 in every 15 black males is in prison or jail, compared to 1 in 106 white males.”
“Booker offers the kinds of criminal justice reform solutions that we have been advocating and implementing for years,” said SCSJ staff attorney Daryl Atkinson. “Through our Ban the Box and Clean Slate initiatives in Durham, NC, we work to reduce the collateral consequences of a criminal record,” also highlighted by Booker. Thanks to this grassroots advocacy, applicants for Durham county jobs in Durham no longer confront the criminal records question at the front end of the application process. SCSJ also provides free legal assistance to residents with a criminal record to order to apply for expungment and Certificates of Relief. In SCSJ’s efforts to document racial disparities locally and across the state of North Carolina, we have increased the public’s understanding of fundamental issues of fairness and justice in the system. And the NC Second Chance Alliance (of which SCSJ is a founding member) is on the cutting edge–giving voice and leadership to people directly affected by the criminal justice system.
To anyone that cares about the fact that we as a nation house 25% of the world’s prisoners, Booker’s criminal justice reform platform is exciting news. Booker brings the kind of star power and charisma not seen in politics since another African American burst onto the scene with a run for the Senate from Illinois. It is game-changing to think that we will have a real partner in the Senate, dedicated to replicating our efforts at the national level, particularly at a time when everyone from the Attorney General to Grover Norquist (and even Will i.am) say that something’s got to give. But can Booker deliver? The special election to fill Senator Frank Lautenberg’s seat is on October 16, 2013. We will find out soon enough if Cory Booker can turn his political superpowers (which he has been both mocked and praised for) on the world’s biggest jailer.
By Meredith McMonigle: Macro Social Work Intern, Southern Coalition for Social Justice