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American Bar Association endorses multiple criminal justice reform proposals

American Bar Association endorses multiple criminal justice reform proposals

The policy making body of the American Bar Association has approved multiple resolutions calling for a major reform of bail, an end to locking juveniles up in solitary confinement, and an end to mandatory minimum sentences.

The resolutions put the ABA, a voluntary professional association with over 400,000 members, in line with what many criminal justice reform groups have been actively pushing for years.

The resolution calling for bail reform urges local governments to adopt policies that allow people charged with crimes to get out of jail on personal recognizance or unsecured bonds. It also encourages local governments to only seek cash or secured bonds when they are “necessary to assure the defendant’s appearance and no other conditions will suffice for that purpose.” The resolution further suggests “that pretrial detention should never occur due solely to an inability to pay.”

Bail reform has been gaining steady traction around the country. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) recently sponsored legislation to reform bail nationally and states like Kentucky and New Jersey and the District of Columbia have moved to reform their respective practices. District Attorneys in places like Chicago and Houston have also come out in support of reform, arguing that it’s necessary to reduce the prison population and avoid disrupting the lives of people who could lose their jobs and income if they remain locked up for months or years on unresolved charges.

The ABA resolution and accompanying report also recommends doing away with juvenile solitary confinement. It suggests that temporary confinement of up to four hours could be used when a juvenile’s behavior could be harmful to himself or others. But the confinement should conclude when the immediate threat is over.

The ABA’s resolution around juvenile solitary confinement echoes ongoing efforts to end the practice. For example, former President Barack Obama adopted the Department of Justice’s recommendation to end solitary confinement in federal prison facilities. Yet the practice persists at the state and local levels.

The case of Kalief Browder generated national attention and outrage after it was learned that Browder had been locked up at Rikers Island in New York for three years — two of which were in solitary confinement — after he was wrongfully arrested for stealing a backpack.

Browder suffered mightily due to his isolation and treatment while in jail and attempted to kill himself four times. He later committed suicide after the charges were finally dismissed and he was released.

How widespread juvenile solitary confinement is at the state and local level is largely unknown due to the absence of available information.

According to Solitary Watch: “It is impossible to know how many young people under the age of 18 are suffering in solitary confinement as Kalief did, since neither state nor federal governments have reliable data on the total number of youth placed solitary confinement each year. The practice is known to be widespread, but it occurs differently in different types of settings and is referred to by a range of innocuous euphemisms, making it difficult to quantify or track.”

The ABA resolution also calls for an end to the use of mandatory minimum sentences. It asks the U.S. Congress and state legislatures to repeal existing mandatory minimum sentences and oppose the creation of any new such legislation.

The report stressed that the United States locks up more people than any other country on earth, and in the 25 years since the adoption of mandatory minimums for drug offenses the average annual sentence has tripled in time served.

Bar officials also pointed out that studies have repeatedly shown that mandatory minimum sentencing more harshly impacts people of color, with black defendants more likely to be charged and sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence.

“Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy,” the report said. “Because mandatory minimum sentences are not in line with the purposes of sentencing and, rather, lead to indeterminate sentencing, racial disparity, and mass incarceration, we urge the adoption of this resolution.”

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

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