The recent passage of the FIRST STEP Act has been lauded by civil rights advocates as a welcome first step on the road toward a fairer and less discriminatory criminal justice system, but the federal law does not offer any relief to more than 2 million inmates of state prisons and jails in Kentucky and around the country. Much of the discussion over mass incarceration has focused on the disproportionately harsh sentences handed down to African-American defendants in narcotics cases, but most of the progress in this area has been made by local authorities exploring alternatives to prison.
In New York City, lawmakers, community groups and law enforcement have worked together to find ways to lower recidivism and make neighborhoods safer, and the number of people under lock and key in city jails has fallen from more than 21,000 in 1991 to fewer than 8,200 as a result. Programs designed to rehabilitate rather than punish offenders in New York City are operated by nonprofit groups, prosecutors and the courts.
Programs using cognitive behavioral therapy have been particularly effective. During CBT sessions, offenders are taught how to avoid potentially violent confrontations by thinking before responding during conflicts. Researchers have discovered that this approach can cut recidivism rates in half. Studies also suggest that harsh custodial sentences may actually be counterproductive as they make it more difficult for offenders to reintegrate themselves into society and get their lives back on track.
Efforts to make the criminal justice system fairer and more effective would likely be supported by criminal defense attorneys. During plea negotiations, defense attorneys might encourage prosecutors to consider alternatives to a custodial sentence by pointing out mitigating factors such as a steady job, supportive relatives and sincere regret. Attorneys may also remind prosecutors that entering into a plea agreement guarantees them a successful outcome whereas making arguments before a jury always involves a certain degree of risk.