Criminal Justice Reform: Issues and Obstacles

Sarah Belyeu

Support for punitive justice has a long-standing history in the US. From the post Civil War “prison boom,” to the “Tough on Crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s, punitive measures often contribute to the social inequities they are rooted in. While attitudes are slow to change, other systemic problems – over-policing, lack of accountability, and recidivism – feed into the cycle of mass incarceration and further complicate the path to criminal justice reform.

Most 911 calls are not made in response to violent crime, or even property crime. Yet police officers are the de-facto responders to a wide variety of social issues ranging from disturbances to mental health crises. In order to improve response and reduce over policing some of these emergency calls could be diverted to health services and trained social workers. Police officers are not often adequately trained in de-escalation techniques and would benefit from both training and outsourcing, especially in the event of non-violent conflicts. However, the lack of resources and social services prevents any significant reform from taking place and police officers continue to be dispatched to mitigate issues that stem from poverty and social injustice.


The lack of accountability inside departments themselves also poses a barrier to reform. The blue shield, or blue wall of silence, is a well-known phenomenon in policing culture where officers cover up known criminality in the department. Many states also have their own laws guaranteeing rights for officers who are under investigation by their superiors. These vary from state to state but may include provisions such as: an officer may not be disciplined after a certain number of days since the alleged misconduct; the department must notify the officer and union if a complaint is pursued; and if the officer is suspended the department is obligated to continue payment, benefits, and the cost of an attorney. These guarantee an officer’s security in civil suits but may also impede efforts to hold them accountable. Officers also have qualified immunity from civil claims and money damages. Holding police accountable for their actions is a necessary part of reform but the culture of blindly supporting law enforcement even in response to misconduct prevents this, while also eroding public confidence in the system. 

Due to systemic racism and overcriminalization, Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. These disparities reach beyond the lives of those incarcerated and into the community at large. When a family member is incarcerated, the impacts extend far beyond financial concerns. The criminalization of other family members, disrupted parent-child relationships, and mental health issues, are some of the consequences that reach into the community and that feed into a cycle of social injustice 

Empty jail. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

The revolving door of penal institutions serves as a reminder that mass incarceration is not the most effective response to reforming offenders. The expenditure alone should be deterrent enough; we allocate more than 80 billion dollars a year to corrections. However, about 76.6% of prisoners recidivate within five years of release. The United States’ rate of recidivism is evidence of the inefficiency of the current penal system. Yet, compared to other Western Democracies, the U.S. remains a largely punitive country with the incarcerated population exceeding 2.1 million people.  

Support for punitive justice is slowly waning, but the mentality of policy makers is not changing where it matters the most. This resistance to change presents the most complex hurdle because a shift in attitude necessarily precedes lasting and significant reform. While addressing root causes of crime will always be crucial, it will have to be done in tandem with reevaluating the punitive, Tough-on-Crime policies that have led to mass incarceration.