Redefining Incarceration with Lessons for Pretrial Justice


American University’s Justice Programs Office held a summit last week on how the criminal justice community can continue to improve their systems by redefining practices and outcomes. Maintaining Momentum: Redefining the Purpose of Incarceration in the Ongoing Conversations about Criminal Justice Reform included speakers and attendees from all parts of the criminal justice spectrum, including law enforcement, pretrial services, defenders, judges, community advocates, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Members of AU's Justice Programs Office with keynote speaker Glenn Martin.

The panel topics were wide-ranging, but several themes emerged, including

  • People who come through criminal justice systems must be humanized;
  • Justice systems need to reassess and redefine success; and
  • Reform initiatives must recognize the importance of state and local action.

The summit’s focus was mass incarceration, but these three themes apply just as easily to pretrial justice. What happens to individuals at the pretrial stage impacts their likelihood of committing crime in the future, of being convicted, of being sentenced to incarceration, and the length of custodial sentences. That’s why we continuously remind folks that pretrial is the gateway to mass incarceration.

What does this mean for those of us focused on improving pretrial justice? First, we must remember that each defendant is a person with a history, a family, and a future and avoid divisive categories like poor/wealthy, dangerous/not dangerous, risky/not risky that tend to dehumanize people. Jonathan Rapping of Gideon’s Promise eloquently emphasized this point in his Pi-Con UP Incubator presentation. Second, we must ensure that how we measure our system’s success is not limited to court appearance but also includes indicators of success for arrested people, their communities, and victims of crime. Finally, we must remember that pretrial justice is primarily a state and local issue and efforts to improve these systems can have a great impact.

Events like the Maintaining Momentum summit allow people working to improve criminal justice—whether by improving pretrial fairness or by reducing prison populations—to share ideas, experience, and lessons and ensure that the momentum of today continues into tomorrow and beyond.

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