“National Criminal Justice Month brings awareness to the criminal justice system on a wide scale. It brings awareness not just to the people who are studying criminal justice and criminal justice practitioners, but also to society as a whole.”
Cassandra L. Reyes, PhD, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at West Chester University and ACJS Board Liaison to the National CJ Month Committee
March is National Criminal Justice Month. Established by the United States Congress in 2009, its purpose is to promote societal awareness around the causes and consequences of crime, as well as strategies for preventing and responding to crime.
The criminal justice system touches the lives of nearly every American in some form or another: the United States has more jails than colleges and it incarcerates over two million people—more than any other country in the world. It employs another three million criminal justice professionals and supervises over five million adults on probation or parole.
There’s room for improvement. In 2020, for the first time in history, the US fell out of the top 20 in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. Based on national surveys of more than 130,000 households and 4,000 legal practitioners and experts, the Index measures how effectively countries’ justice systems operate. The US scored particularly poorly when it came to issues of accessibility and absence of discrimination.
Many of the inefficiencies of America’s criminal justice system are structural in nature, making them at times insidious and self-replicating, but also fixable. Today’s criminal justice professionals, along with the general public, can play a part in better providing liberty and justice for all. Awareness is the first step.
This March, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) and its affiliates, along with the United States Government, urge policymakers, criminal justice officials, educators, victim service providers, nonprofits, community leaders, and others to help direct public focus toward the need to make our criminal justice system as effective as possible.
To learn more about National Criminal Justice Month, and the key issues in the criminal justice system today, read on.
Cassandra L. Reyes, PhD is an associate professor of criminal justice at West Chester University. She received her MA and PhD in Criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the faculty at West Chester University, Dr. Reyes worked as a Probation Officer-Bilingual and a Senior Parole Officer-Bilingual for the State of New Jersey, as a dispatcher for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Police Department, and as a Correctional Officer at the Indiana County Jail.
Dr. Reyes’s research interests include animal cruelty, corrections, juvenile delinquency, theories of crime and delinquency, violence, and victimology. Dr. Reyes co-edited two editions of Animal Cruelty: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Understanding with Dr. Mary Brewster, and has served as a manuscript reviewer for several peer-reviewed journals, including the American Journal of Criminal Justice, Feminist Criminology, the International Criminal Justice Review, The Prison Journal, Society and Animals, and Violence Against Women.
Ojmarrh Mitchell, PhD is an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. He earned his PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland, with a doctoral minor in Measurement, Statistics, and Evaluation. His research interests center on criminal justice policy, particularly in the areas of drug control, sentencing and corrections, and racial fairness in the criminal justice system. More broadly, he studies the effectiveness and fairness of criminal justice sanctions.
Dr. Mitchell’s research has appeared in many prominent criminology journals, including Justice Quarterly, the Journal of Experimental Criminology, the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, and Criminology & Public Policy. Dr. Mitchell recently won NIJ’s W.E.B. Du Bois Scholars in Race and Crime award to study prosecutorial decision-making and case processing in the state of Florida.
“National Criminal Justice Month brings awareness to the criminal justice system on a wide scale,” says Cassandra L. Reyes, PhD, associate professor of criminal justice at West Chester University and ACJS board liaison to the National Criminal Justice Month Committee. “It brings awareness not just to the people who are studying criminal justice and criminal justice practitioners, but also to society as a whole.”
The events of recent years have shaken the foundations of the criminal justice system: the murder of George Floyd highlighted the nation’s ongoing battle with police brutality and racial disparities; Covid-19 brought renewed attention to the conditions of overcrowded jails and prisons; and some states’ polices from the War on Drugs Era changed to reclassify drug offenses by otherwise non-violent offenders as the mental health and substance abuse issues they are.
“I worked for ten years in law enforcement before I went back to grad school, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of changes,” Dr. Reyes says. “Criminal justice is always moving, with new bills and new laws put into place. But more and more people are becoming aware of the issues in the criminal justice system, especially regarding racial disparities.”
Historically, criminal justice reform has been dependent upon the whims of local, state, and federal governments, and to a large extent it still is. But today the general public is playing an increasingly powerful role. How the criminal justice system navigates the landscape of the 21st century’s technologies, and the social movements those technologies foment, is a pressing issue for criminal justice professionals.
“Social media has definitely had an impact,” Dr. Reyes says. “Oftentimes, we’ll only see part of what happened in a post on Facebook or Instagram, and not the full scenario of what happened at the time. But it’s also holding our officers more accountable for what they’re doing because the whole world is watching.”
Dr. Reyes is what’s colloquially known as a “prac-adaemic”—a practitioner-academic who has both worked in the field and conducted research in the field. This blend of hands-on experience and critical analysis can foster a more multidimensional understanding of the criminal justice system. It’s one of the reasons why Dr. Reyes advises her students and other aspiring criminal justice professionals to find ways to get involved with professionals in their area of interest: shadowing court officials, going on police ridealongs, or even just reaching out to one of the ACJS experts.
It’s never too early to get started. For National Criminal Justice Month, many local community colleges and universities host hands-on crime scene investigation simulations, documentary screenings, expert guest speakers, and job fairs. They may also bring in other academic departments from across their campuses to better understand their intersection with criminal justice. And, given the nature of the criminal justice system, no two years are likely to be exactly the same.
“The criminal justice system is definitely changing,” Dr. Reyes says. “Some say for the better, some say for the worse. But I don’t think it’ll ever be a static area. It’ll always be dynamic.”
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 once again drew the public’s eye to the issue of race in the criminal justice system. But the problems with differential treatment and injustice are historically rooted, pervasive, and ongoing.
“Race has been central to the criminal justice system in the US from its inception,” says Ojmarrh Mitchell, PhD, associate professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University.
During the Slave Era (1619-1865), there were laws enforced exclusively against Blacks, who were denied due process rights. Even after Emancipation, the criminal justice system was clearly used as a means to control the Black population. The Civil Rights Era saw a reduction in the amount of “naked racism” in the criminal justice system, and more adherence to due process, but there’s still a long way to go.
“Today, race still affects case processes and outcomes, but the role of race is much more subtle,” Dr. Mitchell says. “Race affects treatment by the criminal justice system indirectly (e.g., via Black/white differences in wealth, access to private attorneys, ability to post bail, disparities in prior criminal history) or in combination with other factors such as age and gender (e.g., young Black men are often punished most harshly). Black victims of crime also still appear to receive less justice (e.g., less likely for crimes to be solved or charged by prosecutors) than white victims.”
Racially biased policies can be difficult to see and assess. The use of criminal history in decision-making, punitive policies towards drugs associated with minorities (but treatment-first approaches to drugs associated with whites), and mandatory minimum sentences for offenses statistically associated with Blacks (such as offenses involving firearms or crack cocaine) all institutionalize racial bias within the criminal justice system.
“The biggest public misconception concerning racial issues in the criminal justice system is a dual-headed one,” Dr. Mitchell says. “For those on the political right, there’s a misconception that the criminal justice system is fair and just by race. On the left, there’s a misconception that the criminal justice system is racially biased in clear and transparent ways. The reality is that the criminal justice system is neither racially fair nor nakedly biased. Instead, race effects are indirect, interactional, and baked into laws and policies that on the surface appear to be race-neutral.”
The American criminal justice system punishes Blacks more harshly than whites, but it also under-protects Black communities and Black victims. This second form of discrimination is a key contributor to the retaliatory violence which plagues some racially segregated neighborhoods: abandoned by the traditional justice system, citizens in these communities may be inclined to administer their own justice, with tragic consequences. Changes in policy need to consider the wide spectrum of discrimination that exists within the criminal justice system.
“There are many policy reforms that could make the criminal justice system more equitable without harming public safety,” Dr. Mitchell says.
Over the last 40 years, the US has seen a 500 percent increase in its prison and jail populations. This increase has been caused primarily by an increase in punitive policies, such as the War on Drugs, rather than changes in actual crime rates. It’s also disproportionately affected the Black community. Rolling back punitive policies and mandatory sentencing for minor offenses could help reduce racial bias, and move towards a more equitable and effective criminal justice system.
In policing, utilizing focused, proactive law enforcement instead of broad proactive activities that produce racial profiling could reduce the kinds of toxic police-citizen interactions that lead to the use of force, and sometimes the lethal use of force.
When it comes to the courts, adequately funding public defenders would go a long way towards ensuring that each and every defendant receives fair treatment—and requiring access to data on case processing and outcomes can increase the transparency of prosecutors’ decision-making. Further reforms in parole review, probation terms, prison conditions, and the treatment of drug offenses could further roll back some of the more racially biased features of the criminal justice system.
“Meaningful criminal justice reform is not only possible, it’s ongoing in many states,” Dr. Mitchell says. “The challenge is and will be enacting reforms in less liberal states and at the federal level.”
Today’s criminal justice professionals will play a crucial role in shaping the relationship between race and the criminal justice system in America. But overhauling the world’s largest criminal justice system will not happen overnight, nor will it be achieved through a single change in policy. It requires a collaborative, iterative, and critical approach: if the first step is awareness, then the second step is cooperation.
“One way for new and aspiring criminal justice professionals to reform the system is to combine and align the internal reformation efforts of criminal justice professionals with the external reformation efforts of community members,” Dr. Mitchell says. “Together, this alliance has the power to transform the criminal justice system.”
An effective and equitable criminal justice system requires the collaborative efforts of many different criminal justice professionals, organizations, and individuals. To join the most pressing conversations in criminal justice today, check out some of the resources below.
Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.