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Police, Sentencing and Prisons: Maximizing Impacts of Criminal Justice Reform

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mark Kling & Linda-Marie Sundstrom
April 15, 2021

The United States has the highest mass incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million individuals incarcerated in jails and prisons. For decades, advocates have been calling for criminal justice reform, only to be frustrated that systemic issues still remain in the areas of police misconduct, sentence disparities, overcrowded jails and prisons and laws that adversely impact disadvantaged communities.

Frustration with Criminal Justice Reform

This frustration, with the limited systemic changes, has caused groups to advocate for a variety of changes, piece-by-piece, in the areas of police reform, sentencing/legal reform and prison reform. However, some of these changes have been done in silos (separate and unrelated) and have resulted in a “piece meal” approach to reform. These reforms have left significant gaps in the system and created a series of unintended consequences.

Cross-Jurisdictional Impacts

Criminal Justice Reforms have been implemented, often as a result of a crisis or other “focusing event.” Some of the solutions have been quickly implemented and designed to address a single “silo” reform issue. If solutions are developed in a silo, they are likely to adversely impact other aspects of the criminal justice system. For example, if a law is passed to reduce recidivism, through a narrow lens, it could adversely impact law enforcement agencies or the courts. Conversely, if the courts or District Attorneys reform in a silo, by unilaterally preventing crimes from being charged due to perceived disparities, law enforcement may have to address ongoing crime in communities without the ability to arrest and change the violators. The agencies that need to be involved in a partnership for comprehensive reform include the legislative branch, law enforcement, District Attorneys, corrections and community groups/nonprofits. The plan needs to achieve coordinated, incremental changes that can be rolled out deliberately rather than focusing on rapid, short-term “silo” decisions that often result in unintended consequences. We have briefly explored a few such issues in Police Reform, Sentencing Reform and Prison Reform (below). Although these are merely brief examples, there are numerous others in each category.

Police Reform

There have been increasing calls to “Defund the Police.” Most proponents want funding diverted from law enforcement and invested into alternative services such as mental health, homeless services, addiction treatment, etc. Cities that have already made significant cuts to police budgets have seen escalating rates of violent crimes, homicides and in some instances, civil unrest. However, there are proven ways for law enforcement to partner with social service organizations and other government agencies to address these issues rather than merely defunding law enforcement. Opening dialog between all stakeholders can build partnerships for solutions, while limiting unintended consequences.

Sentencing Reform

Various sentencing requirements are said to punish disadvantaged communities harsher than other populations. One way to address the sentencing disparities is for the legislative branch to change the law, but legislatures seem overwhelmed with the number of sentencing issues. One alternative being used in several large cities is for the elected District Attorney (DA) to issue “Directives” mandating that the Deputy District Attorneys (DDAs) “shall not” charge certain crimes that are unilaterally deemed by the DA to adversely impact disadvantaged populations. Once a DA unilaterally decrees that no charges will be filed for a variety of crimes, he/she ultimately creates a de facto law, overriding the Rule of Law. Prosecutors may be limited in charging sentencing enhancements or other crimes altogether. The DA’s directives may result in less prosecutions, but violent crime is not reduced in communities – it is just no longer prosecuted.   

Prison Reform

Issues of Prison Reform often center around reducing recidivism. One measure designed to combat recidivism was California’s AB-109, which “shifted” individuals convicted of non-violent felonies from state prison to county jails. Since the county jails in the state were already at capacity, these felons were released to probation or parole. However, inmates released through this method lost access to GED preparation, vocational training and even college courses, which have shown to reduce recidivism. In a recent examination of the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s Most Wanted list, nearly 100% of those individuals formerly incarcerated were released from State Prison due to AB-109, and were wanted for subsequent crimes/violations. In most cases law enforcement officials indicate these “most wanted” criminals continue to reoffend until subsequently apprehended. If the goal is to reduce recidivism, early release may have had unintended consequences that increased crime and failed to reduce recidivism.

Need for a Comprehensive Reform

 In order to achieve the necessary reform, and minimize the unintended consequences, Criminal Justice Reforms need to build a comprehensive solution that achieves coordinated, incremental changes, rather than quick “silo” decisions, that often result in unintended consequences. Groups need to partner together including the legislative branch (to change the laws), law enforcement agencies (that enforce the laws), District Attorneys (who prosecute the laws), jails and prisons (that incarcerate those convicted of violating the laws) and community groups, nonprofits and citizens (who are impacted by the laws). To achieve long lasting reforms, cross jurisdictional partnerships need to be developed, and open dialog between all stakeholders need to be brought to the table. 


Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government, and has taught in Masters of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

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