Be the Change:
Careers & Degrees for Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal justice reform can mean a lot of things, no matter which side of the issue you stand. Get a detailed look at the criminal justice system in America, discover the primary challenges and potential solutions, and learn how you can make a difference via voting, volunteering, or with a career in the field.

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

Meet the Expert
Brian-Lovins
Dr. Brian Lovins

Principal for Justice System Partners

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Dr. Brian Lovins is currently a Principal for Justice System Partners and is the President-Elect for the American Probation and Parole Association. Dr. Lovins has worked within the criminal justice and juvenile justice system as well as conducted research to move the system forward.

A discussion of criminal justice reform needs to start with the facts. Understanding the statistics shines a light on how many people are impacted, but more importantly it shows how certain communities have been impacted more than others.

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Facts About Criminal Justice in the U.S.

  • 2.3 million prisoners: That is how many Americans are currently incarcerated, but that’s’ not the whole picture. Americans “go to jail” 10.6 million times a year.
  • #1 in the world: With only 5% of the world’s population, America holds ¼ of the world’s incarcerated population in its prisons. The U.S. has higher incarceration rates that countries we consider to have more dubious human rights records like Russia, China, and El Salvador.
  • 700% increase in 50 years: Tough on crime and war on drugs initiatives kickstarted a stunning increase in incarceration starting in 1970.
  • 555,000 pretrial detentions: Prohibitively high bail practices result in hundreds of thousands of people being locked up without being convicted or sentenced for a crime.

What Is Criminal Justice Reform?

Criminal justice reform is the practice of shifting away from overly harsh or punitive or prescriptive consequences for criminal acts and towards prevention, treatment, and restoration.

It helps to think of the criminal justice system like a web, rather than a conveyor belt that goes from crime to court to prison. At the center of this web is the individual, who may experience trauma, socio-economic conditions, racial disparities, substance abuse, and educational, behavioral, or mental health challenges. An increased, front-end focus on prevention and deflection is one very important part of this web of reform. When at-risk youth and adults do become justice involved, the web of reform expands to include appropriate legal representation, diversion, informed sentencing, and treatment and support that addresses the specific needs of the individual. The outer edge of the web of reform are the reentry programs that connect individuals to opportunities and community that lead to success and reduce recidivism.

The overarching goal of criminal justice reform is to reduce the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and on our society as a whole.

How Can Criminal Justice Reform Happen?

With millions behind bars and $80 billion a year spent just on correctional facilities, liberals and conservatives are aligned in pushing for criminal justice reform. Their approaches to reform differ as much as their understanding of how we got in this mess. At the grassroots level, however, politics takes a backseat to purposeful action.

A Liberal View on Criminal Justice Reform

The liberal view of the criminal justice system is laid out in detail by the New York Times bestselling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This view stands upon the idea that the system of racial injustice that began with slavery has continued through to the modern day by criminalizing behavior of the black community and profiting off the labor of inmates. Politics and policies aimed to disenfranchise voters, tough on crime initiatives targeted black communities, and media and political messaging antagonized age-old stereotypes and fears paving the way for discriminatory social policies.

The contrast between how the U.S. and Portugal responded to the introduction of crack cocaine in the1980s exemplifies how attitudes affect outcomes. Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs enacted stricter and harsher penalties for crack, prevalent in black communities, over powder cocaine, prevalent in white communities. By 1991, 1 in 4 young black men in the U.S. were either locked up or otherwise involved in the justice system. In contrast, Portugal decriminalized drug possession and poured its resources into treatment and prevention. Steep declines in drug abuse, drug addiction, and drug-related crime followed.

Discriminatory sentencing extends well beyond the scope of the War on Drugs. Black and Latino Americans make up nearly 60% of the prison population, while they are only 30% of the overall population. They are 55% of prisoners serving drug conviction and 48% of those with “virtual” life sentences. But, it begins before they enter court. In a report to the United Nations, The Sentencing Project spells out how urban poverty collides with predictive policing policies, like New York’s “stop and frisk,” to target young black men and bring them into contact with a justice system that shows preferential treatment to wealthy offenders able to afford vigorous defense counsel.

A Conservative View on Criminal Justice Reform

In his book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, John Pfaff argues against the case laid out above. He contends that it is not the War on Drugs, draconian sentencing guidelines, or privatization of prisons driving the dramatic phenomenon of mass incarceration. Rather, his case largely lays blame at the feet of prosecutors. In his view, prosecutors are “political creatures, who get political rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it.

Prosecutors have access to free resources like collaboration with police departments. For defendants, just knowing that prosecutors have tools like mandatory minimum sentencing creates inequity in a system in which 80% of defendants are poor and must rely on an underfunded, overburdened system of public defenders. That’s where the power of the prosecutors to charge or force a plea comes into play. In Pfaff’s view it is at the local level, rather than the national, where politics enters the picture. Simply stated, prisons create jobs often in poor, rural areas. Further, prisons drive up population counts by including inmates who are, ironically, not afforded the right to vote. That leads to greater asset allocation on the state and federal level for those communities.

That many prosecutors are elected to those positions inevitably leads to conflicts of interest as well. If a prosecutor is behind a decision that puts an offender back on the street, who then reoffends in a way that garners media attention, think of Willie Horton, that can have devastating effects on their careers and futures.

Other Views on Criminal Justice Reform

For Libertarians, who value autonomy and possess a healthy skepticism about the overall role of government, Americans are being unjustly charged and convicted for things they do not view as crime. In this view, only force and fraud that harm individuals and communities should result in incarceration. They argue for increased reliance on diversion programs or reduced sentencing that promote an individual’s right to productively and actively engage in society.

Grassroots reform movements not always directly tied to political or party affiliations. These include:

  • Restoration of voting rights of convicts, reducing the disenfranchisement of minority voters
  • Continuum of care initiatives that leverage less restrictive, often treatment-based placements
  • Restorative justice programs that seek to repair offenders’ relationships with victims and communities

Criminal Justice Reform: Glossary of What You Need to Know

The criminal justice system has its own vocabulary. In order to think critically about the issues involved in reform, you first need to understand the language of the system.

Cash Bail is used to guarantee someone accused of a crime will show for trial. America is one of the only countries in the world that uses a cash bail system. Bail is a discriminatory practice with bail for black and Latino men frequently higher and bond premiums twice as high for black defendants.

Crime reduction is to reduce or deter crime in order to protect the public and reduce the rates of incarceration. Traditionally, strict sentencing such as the use of the death penalty was thought to be deterrent to crime. Modern views on crime reduction often focus on the economic and societal factors that create conditions in which crimes occur.

Death Penalty or capital punishment is the execution of a person convicted of a very serious crime. Appeals in death penalty cases may stretch for decades. Over 70% of countries have abolished the use of the death penalty.

Federal sentencing guidelines use a point-based system to determine prison sentences for federal crimes. The result of sentencing guidelines is less variability and generally longer sentencing. Despite attempts to reduce it, U.S. Sentencing Commission still finds racial disparities exist.

First Step Act aims to reduce recidivism by enacting reforms and practices that support reentry after incarceration. Some of these reforms include training correctional officers in de-escalation techniques, changes to minimum sentencing for drug offenses, and transferring prisoners to facilities closer to their homes.

Implicit biases aims to reduce recidivism by enacting reforms and practices that support reentry after incarceration. Some of these reforms include training correctional officers in de-escalation techniques, changes to minimum sentencing for drug offenses, and transferring prisoners to facilities closer to their homes.

Inhumane conditions in prisons  are often associated with practices such as solitary confinement or abusive, punitive treatment. Overcrowding, lack of access to mental and health care, violence, and discrimination or mistreatment of based on race, gender identity or disability also represent conditions the ACLU considers inhumane.

Jury Selection happens prior to trial with six to twelve individuals selected from a pool. Juries determine guilt and innocence of defendants. Racial bias can have a significant impact on trial outcomes for poor and minority defendants.

Juvenile incarceration  is the practice of housing children, generally from ages 7 up to 21, at facilities outside of their houses as a result of involvement with the criminal justice system. While rates have fallen an astounding 60% in the last two decades, 48,000 children are locked up on any given day. Thousands of these kids are awaiting trial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Mass incarceration  refers to the phenomenon of U.S. incarceration rates, which are the highest in the world. Commonly, it is often used as shorthand for discriminatory attitudes and practices that result in more men of color being arrested and sentenced to harsher, longer prison terms.

Mental health services and rehabilitation programs exist by necessity in prisons. With widespread substance abuse and mental health issues in correctional facilities, often treating those conditions is the first step towards rehabilitation. Other services include education, job training, counseling, and access to activities like yoga and gardening have all been shown to reduce recidivism.

Non-violent drug-related offenses  make up a large percentage of state and federal prison populations. The Bureau of Prisons in May 2020 showed 45% of those held overall, were being held on drug offenses. Non-violent drug offenses include possession, use, distribution and manufacturing of controlled substances.

Parole and probation are supervised alternatives to incarceration and dependent on meeting conditions of release. Parole is the early release of an offender, usually at the discretion of a parole board. Probation occurs before incarceration or, in the case of a split sentence, after a relatively short period of incarceration.

Plea bargains occur when prosecutors offer a reduced charge or sentence in exchange for a defendant pleading guilty to a crime. For some, it can mean court diversion, such as treatment for substance abuse. Others may feel they cannot risk jury trial and therefore feel pressure to plead, even if they are innocent.

Police excessive force otherwise known as police brutality, is a legal term that refers to the undue use of force by police against a civilian. It can range from demeaning speech to deadly force is disproportionately carried out on poor and minority communities.

Private prisons make up only 8% of the nation’s correctional facilities. These facilities are considered ‘private’ because they are run by for-profit companies as opposed to local, state, or federal agencies. They are, however, contracted, regulated, and paid by those agencies.

Racial inequality refers to societal and economic conditions that create disparities in wealth and opportunity for minority communities. Racial biases are the stereotypes and assumptions made based on race or ethnicity, whether conscious or unconscious.

Recidivism and re-entry programs and policies relate to the preparation for inmates scheduled to be released. Education, employment, and housing supports aim to reduce recidivism, reoffending and returning to prison.

Sentencing reform relates to advocacy and legislative activities addressing sentencing practices that are discriminatory or overly punitive.

Wrongful convictions occur when innocent people are sentenced for crimes they did not commit. Plea bargains and jury trials can lead to wrongful convictions.

How to Be the Change and Get Involved

Understanding and respecting multiple perspectives on criminal justice reform is the first step to meaningful change. Ultimately, the very fact that such a robust debate exists underscores the seriousness of the issue, one that is well worth building a career around. As you critically examine your own assumptions, you can also gain a clearer understanding of the forces currently shaping reform efforts by getting involved.

Raise Awareness

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Volunteer

Connect with at-risk populations. It breaks down barriers, helping to remind you of the humanity of every individual. And, those relationships can be powerful drivers for deterrence and success.

Fund Raise

Nonprofit organizations working with at-risk or justice involved populations and working for social justice or reform are dependent upon grants and donations to be financially viable.

Civic Engagement

Participating in our democracy and raising your voice against injustice are time honored paths to change. Showing up to support communities that are reeling from the effects of mass incarceration is a powerful tool for reform.

  • Work to restore voting rights to millions of Americans who have lost them due to a conviction.
  • Participate in voter registration drives that increase participation and therefore representation of the hardest hit communities.
  • Contact your elected representatives at the local and national level to advocate for change.

Choose a Field of Study in Criminal Justice Reform

Empower yourself to be a part of changing the system by bringing your passion for reform into a career in criminal justice.

  • Criminal justice students can join organizations like Alpha Phi Sigma, the National Criminal Justice Honor Society, encouraging scholarship and research.
  • Social workers are an ever-increasing presence in corrections and criminal justice.
  • Psychology and counseling students can study how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is shown to reduce recidivism.

Degrees and Career Paths in Criminal Justice

It’s said that reform is not an event, but a process. It takes action on the part of well-meaning, educated people for that process to move forward. Here are several pathways to consider if you wish to be part of that change.

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice professionals build positive relationships with their communities. A degree in criminal justice provides foundational understanding of the justice system, criminology, ethics and constitutional issues, while also teaching methods like de-escalation techniques that help maintain public safety.  

  • Correctional Officers are generally tasked with overseeing inmates, supervising activities, and maintaining order within correctional facilities. The very best COs also work to build relationships that support and encourage offenders to access programs and initiatives that can resulting in lasting change.
  • Probation Officers work with offenders through court diversion or reentry programs. They connect them with support within their communities, encourage employment and engagement with community resources like AA or NA, and help the offender meet the conditions for release from the justice system.
  • Police officers enforce community laws and statutes to maintain public safety. Initiatives like community policing strengthen officers connections to their community, building trust and helping to foster long-standing improvements in police-community relations.

Psychology

Psychologists work inside correctional facilities or with offenders in diversion and reentry programs. They support people struggling with mental health disorders that are so prevalent in correctional facilities, as well as society at large. Forensic psychologists work with judges and attorneys and may be called as expert witnesses in trials.

  • Forensic psychologists fight the rate of mass incarceration by educating prosecutors and judges on mental health conditions and cognitive impairments. This may mean an offender receives life-changing treatment instead of jail time. They may also be called to testify in civil matters like custody disputes.
  • Clinical psychologists may work one-on-one to assess and treat individual offenders. They may also run groups within prisons addressing issues like substance abuse and childhood trauma. They may be called upon to evaluate whether an offender is eligible for parole

Public Administration

Public administrators work with other government officials to set and enact policies and reforms throughout the criminal justice system. A public administration degree focuses on organizational topics like finance, management, and planning. It builds upon your work experience, allowing you to move into an administrative career in your field.

  • Prison wardens, superintendents, and directors oversee the management and operations, as well as programming and planning of correctional facilities. Enlightened wardens introduce or support programs like prison gardens or work releases that allow prisoners to find purpose and work toward successful rehabilitation.
  • Commissioner, associates commissioners of corrections, and correctional operations managers work at state and federal levels on corrections policy. They often work with state and local government officials to set policy.
  • Police chiefs not only set the policies of their departments, they set the tone. They can promote reform within the system by teaching and promoting techniques like community policing. They can employ psychologists tasked with mental health interventions and train their officers in de-escalation practices.

Public Health

A 2016 study showed that mass incarceration shortened life expectancy in the US by 5 years. Public health degree holders can help reverse that trend by working within correctional facilities and driving prevention initiatives that address both the root causes and co-occurring behaviors in at risk populations.

  • Health educators teach and facilitate inmate-lead sessions to address public health issues like HIV/AIDS and TB that are particularly impactful to prison populations.
  • Healthcare administrators work with correctional departments to plan and deliver services within facilities. They also develop and implement a continuum of care that follows offenders into the community providing key mental and physical health care.
  • Community health workers address the causes that can contribute to criminality or conditions that place communities at higher risk for justice system involvement. Working in areas like violence prevention, substance abuse treatment and prevention, and epidemiology, public health workers help to lessen and alleviate those risk factors.

Social Work

Our prisons have become de facto mental health facilities. On the street, police officers are called to deal with crises stemming from mental, behavioral, and substance disorders. The need for professionals with a degree in social work has never been higher.

  • Substance abuse counselors work one-on-one or in group settings with inmates. They address issues that lead to substance abuse and teach strategies to deal with stress and addiction. They may also help inmates repair relationships with their families outside of prison.
  • Mental health and behavioral health social workers similar to substance abuse counselors, they work with inmates individually and in group settings. Helping to heal the issues that may have led to their incarceration.
  • Police social workers are hired by police departments to work in close collaboration with officers. They may intervene in cases of mental health crises or addiction. They also work with crime and disaster victims, providing critical support that can help heal trauma.

Interview with a Criminal Justice Reform Expert

Brian-Lovins

Dr. Brian Lovins

Dr. Brian Lovins is currently a Principal for Justice System Partners and is the President-Elect for the American Probation and Parole Association. Dr. Lovins has worked within the criminal justice and juvenile justice system as well as conducted research to move the system forward.

What is the current landscape of criminal justice and where do you hope we are headed?

Most people now understand that the system has significant disparities against people of color. It’s not the same game for rich people and poor people, black people and white people. I think there’s a real good understanding within the system and outside the system that something needs to happen.

Where are we headed? We are still on the bridge, so I’m not sure. It’s volatile. I think things could shift in a different direction really easily. One bad case, [like] the Willie Horton case, and all of a sudden we’re retracting across the bridge the wrong way. But, I do think that if we can keep our head down and gather a few wins, we are in a much more humanistic place. We recognize that people who go through the criminal justice system are people first. They’ve done some bad stuff and we have to figure out how to rectify that and fix it. But, we also recognize that there is a ton of hurt and a ton of pain and a ton of problems with the folks that engage in crime as well. I think the criminal justice system is starting to embrace compassion and starting to recognize that maybe we shouldn’t be incarcerating so many people within this context.

Where I hope we are in the future is that we are in a place where the goal is to help the community and the person recover.

What are some of the criminal justice reforms you have seen that have had a major impact?

Starting from the front end of the system, deflection and diversion programs that keep people from penetrating into the jail and through the jail. This is driven all by research. Historically, we have looked at things with an eye towards what we feel. Now, we are looking at it with an eye on what really works and what doesn’t. One of things that we have recognized within the research is that jails are not good places. Short stays cause problems. Long stays cause problems. [Jail] makes people worse. It doesn’t improve their lives. Even a three day stint in jail has significant impacts on people’s lives and they are not better when they get out. They may be equal, but no one walks out of jail in a better place.

[We are] starting to develop programs where law enforcement have discretion to deflect people into community programs instead of jail, getting people into treatment services—substance abuse, mental health. I think there is a big line between violent and non-violent. I think that line needs to be erased. [We need more] programs that are willing to take people who have used violence. Recognizing that they just have issues and that things need to get better for them as well.

The second thing is risk assessment. There isn’t a professional field within the United States that doesn’t use assessment. Not understanding what’s going on with someone and not having a good understanding of what the risk factors are to be able to address them is a problem. Where we get in trouble is when we create these patterns of looking at people based on our past experiences. It gets us in significant trouble with discretion and disparity, because we all have implicit and explicit bias. Instruments are designed to remove the implicit bias that comes along with human decision making.

The reform that has been a game changer is that we are starting to understand responsivity issues better. That’s related to the risk, need, and responsivity principle. The responsivity principle basically says that we need to match services and that we recognize at the individual level that people have significant barriers and different things work for different people under different circumstances. There isn’t a one size fits all program that we can just plug people into and they get better.

What is the role of the community to support offenders, especially justice-involved youth?

The community is imperative. The criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system, is a blip in someone’s life. A long blip under some circumstances and a way too long under others. Another thing that we are really started to recognize is that along with a conviction or adjudication comes collateral consequences. There are studies that [show] 256 to 4,000 collateral consequences to committing a crime. And, I get it. Someone is hurt. Someone has done something bad and they have to pay their retribution to society, whatever that is. I understand that is one of our focuses in the system, but we are a community of recovery as well.

We are compassionate when underdogs pull themselves up. What we have to do as a community is call for politicians and laws and practices to start to shift to allow for people to reenter society without those collateral consequences. Because at the end of the day, it’s our role to bring people back into society in a safe and successful way. It’s a necessary component of a greater society to own that and to be restorative with folks.

What advice would you have for students entering criminal justice to get them in the right paradigm going into the field?

You have to find spaces to meet people in the context of their lives without having the criminal justice tag to them yet. Find ways to see people who are less fortunate, disenfranchised, without seeing them as offenders. So, I think it’s the humanization of people. The tricky part is it’s not ‘go volunteer at a detention center or prison,’ because you see the worst of the worst. You need to see people in the light of their lives. You have to see them with their kids, with their families, with their job or community.

Finding ways to engage in recovery communities is important—seeing people that are outside failing and that are on the path getting better. Seeing the struggle that people have—if that’s a community circle, if that’s a self-help group, if it’s a treatment program. One of the things that I have really appreciated in my career is having a broader exposure to change oriented work that is outside of corrections. How do people change? How do people get better under all sorts of different circumstances? What are the steps to getting better?

Reading and exposing yourself to other concepts and ensuring that you have a good base [of understanding of] human behavior. Even on the more law enforcement side of our world, explore written works that talk about the human element of our work.

The other thing that corrections does, maybe not in the very beginning, but at some point in time on the path as you build your education and career, you are exposed to stuff that shapes your worldview. Making sure you have ways to step back out of that so that you can see the broader picture. I talk to my law enforcement friends and they see bad stuff every day. They are not called to good things. They are not called to births and graduations. They are called to people being killed and hurt and stolen from. And, you can start to get this mindset that everyone is that way. Being able to step out of that and take a breath is important.

Further Reading on Criminal Justice Reform

Bureau of Justice Statistics is the official Department of Justice site for data and statistics on crime and corrections in the United States. It also produces reports and analysis that illuminate national and state trends.

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice is a policy, advocacy and action organization that addresses the use of the justice system to address societal issues in California including diversion programs for justice-involved youth.  

Children’s Defense Fund seeks to end the practice of incarcerating youth and ending solitary confinement for those who are incarcerated through reform and diversion programs.

Equal Justice Initiative offers legal services to those unfairly convicted, sentenced, or treated correctional facilities. They take on death penalty, youth justice, and even issues within the public school system.

Prison Policy Initiative is nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization. Its data and analysis inform discussions while motivating action that leads to meaningful improvement in prisoners lives.

Promising a New Direction for Youth Justice is a report by the Urban Institute that details paradigm shift in dealing with justice involved youth. It addresses approaches and strategies that make up the continuum of care that can support youth within their communities.

Restorative Justice on the Rise is an organization with global reach that provides community members and restorative justice practitioners with resources and education. Podcasts, conferences, and advocacy work promote public dialog around restorative justice initiatives.

Restorative Justice Project helps communities and organizations create pre-charge restorative justice diversion programs that keep kids out of the justice system while addressing the harm done to the community.

Teaching Tolerance informs us of the hidden biases we all carry. Tools and resources are available along with a test that allows you to explore your own implicit biases.

Vera Institute of Justice collaborates with state, local and federal agencies and has projects in 40 states that seek to address the roots and realities of mass incarceration. They tackle racial, ethnic, and socio-economic disparities as well as immigration, policing, sentencing, mental health, and youth justice.