Week after week we ask ourselves: What are we going to do about injustice in the criminal justice system in America? To protest is a powerful symbol of our determination to live in peace and dignity. It is also only one tactic for change. Every four years, we find ourselves gripped by a Presidential election. While the federal government provides meaningful avenues for the protection of civil liberties, the sprawling complexity of the criminal justice system is largely a creation of California’s own State laws: California’s police and prosecutors, California’s courts and prisons, and California’s legislators and governor. Therefore, in order to reform the criminal justice system, we must focus on our elected representatives in State government — our State Senators and State Assemblymembers who are passing the laws that guide California’s broken criminal justice system.
This is why we have created the first ever Criminal Justice Report Card for California’s state government.
Criminal justice reform requires knowledge. Numerous community and advocacy organizations in California are already working to educate voters and elected officials about needed criminal justice reform. In the past year, reform-minded groups have successfully mobilized voters to pressure state lawmakers to end solitary confinement for juveniles, and to help ex-offenders find jobs so that they may meaningfully re-enter their communities. Reform, however, has been slow because it requires a great amount of time and effort to generate the voter mobilization that fuels change. Our intention with the Criminal Justice Report Card is to accelerate the process of educating voters and legislators about criminal justice reform.
Reform also requires courage. Those standing in reform’s way implore us not to meddle with it. They say these policies are too complex for us to understand; that the current system protects us from crime; and that the alternative is too expensive. In reality, fear locks us in a pattern of inaction. The product of this inertia is a criminogenic system — one that perpetuates vicious cycles. The school-to-prison pipeline deprives many of our children the chance to have productive adult lives. Cops are not all bad, but the bad cops are coddled by toothless oversight. Some prosecutors and judges boast about locking people up, while pretending not to benefit from a system that discriminates against minority defendants and causes racial disparities in sentencing. Prisons are warehouses that earn publicly traded corporations a profit while failing to serve their purpose to rehabilitate those who will ultimately be released back into our communities. And when ex-offenders are released into our neighborhoods, they arrive without the resources they need to prevent their future return.
What do these things have in common? All of them can be changed by state lawmakers if we have the strength of will to demand it.
This is why we need a Criminal Justice Report Card for California. Its purpose is simple, and its impact we hope will be profound. Voters want a fast and easy way to understand where their elected representatives stand on criminal justice reform. For this first version, we have examined the voting records of every state lawmaker — all of California’s Assembly Members and State Senators — on a set of relevant criminal justice legislation. After soliciting input from knowledgeable policy experts and activists, we synthesized and analyzed the voting data objectively and evaluated each state lawmaker on a scale from A+ to F.
We hope the Criminal Justice Report Card will tell a story of reform. Using publicly available data, we can now see objectively how those we send to Sacramento are representing our desire for change. It is the first of its kind, and we have designed it as a place to begin. In this first version, many lawmakers have earned top scores, and we hope to see more. But we also expect the criteria by which they are judged to become more rigorous as voters aspire to loftier reforms.
When you vote in November, take the Criminal Justice Report Card with you to the ballot. Share it with your friends and neighbors. Tell your elected representatives you are going to be watching their performance on it now and in the future. And send us your feedback and ideas about how we can make this a more useful tool in years to come. This is an ambitious effort, and we can’t do it without your help.