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
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.


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.

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Choose a Field of Study in Criminal Justice Reform

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


Public Administration

Public Health

Social Work

Interview with a Criminal Justice Reform Expert


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?

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

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

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

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.