Biden’s rebuke of a bold, reform-minded crime law makes all Americans less safe

President Joe Biden’s support for a Republican-led effort to nullify the Washington D.C. City Council’s revision of its criminal code, signed into law on Monday, plays into the fear narrative that is being increasingly advanced across the U.S.

Biden could have used his platform and clout to clarify the actual substance of the carefully crafted District of Columbia proposal — and adhere to his campaign commitment to reduce the number of incarcerated Americans.

Instead, the president ignored the glaring problems in D.C.’s existing criminal code, which the 275-page long package of revisions was designed to address. This included reforming the draconian and inflexible sentencing requirements that have swelled the District’s incarceration rate and wasted countless resources imprisoning individuals who pose no danger to public safety. By rejecting this decade-plus effort, the president decided that D.C. residents have no right to determine for themselves how to fix these problems.

There are communities across the U.S. that see virtually no violent crime, and it isn’t because they’re the most policed.

Biden’s decision is the latest backlash to U.S. justice reform coming from both sides of the political aisle.

Instead of doubling down on failed tough-on-crime tactics, Americans need to come together to articulate and invest in a new vision of public safety. We already know what that looks like because there are communities across the country which see virtually no violent crime, and it isn’t because they’re the most policed.

Safe communities are places where people (even those facing economic distress) are housed, where schools have the resources to teach all children, where the water and air are clean, where families have access to good-paying jobs and comprehensive healthcare, and where those who are struggling are given a hand, not a handcuff.

This is the kind of community every American deserves to live in, but that future is only possible if we shift resources from carceral responses to communities and shift our mindset from punishment to prevention. 

Too often it’s easier to advocate for locking people up than it is to innovate and advance a new vision for public safety. 

In the wake of particularly traumatic years, as well as growing divisiveness that has politicized criminal justice reform, it is not surprising that many people believe their communities are less safe. While public perceptions of crime have long been disconnected from actual crime rates and can be heavily influenced by media coverage, the data tells a mixed story. Homicide rates did increase in both urban and rural areas in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and record levels of gun sales.

While early available data suggests these numbers are trending down, it’s too soon to tell, especially given the nation’s poor crime data infrastructure. What is clear is that there is no evidence that criminal justice reform is to blame for rising crime, despite well-funded attempts by those resistant to change and who are intent on driving a political agenda to make such a claim stick. 

Yet fear often obscures facts; people are scared for their safety and want reassurance. Too often it’s easier to advocate for locking people up than it is to innovate and advance a new vision for public safety. 

We need leaders who can govern with both empathy and integrity – who can provide genuine compassion to those who feel scared while also following the data about how to create safer communities. And all the data points to the need for reform. 

Mass incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion annually.

Mass incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion annually, when you factor in not only the cost of confinement but also the crushing toll placed on incarcerated people and their families, children, and communities. Despite this staggering figure, there’s no real evidence that incarceration works, and in fact some evidence to suggest it actually makes people more likely to commit future crimes. Yet we keep pouring more and more taxpayer dollars into this short-sighted solution that, instead of preventing harm, only delays and compounds it. 

We have to stop pretending that reform is the real threat to public safety and recognize how our over-reliance on incarceration actually makes us less safe. 

Reform and public safety go hand in hand. Commonsense changes including reforming cash bail, revisiting extreme sentences and diverting people from the criminal legal system have all been shown to have positive effects on individuals and communities.

At a time of record-low clearance rates nationwide and staffing challenges in police departments and prosecutor’s offices, arresting and prosecuting people for low-level offenses that do not impact public safety can actually make us less safe by directing resources away from solving serious crimes and creating collateral consequences for people that make it harder to escape cycles of poverty and crime. 

Yet, tough-on-crime proponents repeatedly misrepresent justice reform by claiming that reformers are simply letting people who commit crimes off the hook. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reform does not mean a lack of accountability, but rather a more effective version of accountability for everyone involved. 

Our traditional criminal legal system has failed victims time and again. In a 2022 survey of crime survivors, just 8% said that the justice system was very helpful in navigating the legal process and being connected to services. Many said they didn’t even report the crime because of distrust of the system. 

When asked what they want, many crime survivors express a fundamental desire to ensure that the person who caused them harm doesn’t hurt them or anyone else ever again. But status quo approaches aren’t providing that. The best available data shows that 7 in 10 people released from prison in 2012 were rearrested within five years. Perhaps that’s why crime victims support alternatives to traditional prosecution and incarceration by large margins. 

For example, in New York City, Common Justice offered the first alternative-to-incarceration program in the country focused on violent felonies in adult courts. When given the option, 90% of eligible victims chose to participate in a restorative justice program through Common Justice over incarcerating the person who harmed them. Just 7% of participants have been terminated from the program for committing a new crime. 

A restorative justice program launched by former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón for youth facing serious felony charges was shown to reduce participants’ likelihood of rearrest by 44 percent within six months compared to youth who went through the traditional juvenile justice system, and the effects were still notable even four years after the initial offer to participate.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt launched a groundbreaking program last year to allow people convicted of violent offenses to avoid prison time if they commit to behavioral health treatment. As of January, just one of 60 participants had been rearrested for a misdemeanor. 

While too many politicians give lip service to reform, those who really care about justice are doing the work, regardless of electoral consequences. We need more bold, innovative leaders willing to rethink how we achieve safety and accountability, not those who go where the wind blows and spread misinformation for political gain. 

Fear should not cause us to repeat the mistakes of the past. When politicians finally decide to care more about protecting people than protecting their own power, only then will we finally achieve the safety that all communities deserve. 

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a former federal prosecutor, and the author of Change from Within: Reimagining the 21st-Century Prosecutor. Alyssa Kress is the communications director of Fair and Just Prosecution.  

More: Wrongful convictions cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Wrongdoing prosecutors must be held accountable.

Plus: Senate votes to block D.C. crime laws, with Biden’s support

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Iran: ‘Sham’ courts hand out severe sentences for passive protest

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After months of strikes and protests in Iran, thousands of people have been arrested and now face harsh sentences by the courts, including death. Activists, journalists and lawyers have received long prison terms for supporting the demonstrations or expressing their opposition to the regime, even passively. Activists and NGOs say that the Iranian judiciary is increasing the pressure on those arrested, handing out absurd charges, forcing confessions through extortion and torturing detainees. 

Since the start of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran in mid-September 2022, at least 19,000 people have been arrested by the Islamic regime, according to human rights organisations. Thousands of them, indicted by the Attorney General’s Office, are now facing trials, which Amnesty International qualifies as “unfair” and “shams”. Some sentences have already been handed out by the courts.

More than five years of prison for dancing

Protesters have been sentenced to severe punishments for even the most absurd of crimes. One couple was even sentenced to five years in prison for posting a video of themselves dancing.

Astiyazh Haghighi and Amir Ahmadi, a couple in their early 20s, were arrested on November 1, 2022 and sentenced to five years in prison for “promoting immorality and prostitution”, “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state” after they shared a video of themselves dancing together near Azadi Square in Tehran. 

The couple was also accused of “inviting people to protest” on their social media accounts where they have more than one million followers. 

While many media outlets reported that the young couple had been sentenced to more than ten years in prison, Mizan, a website belonging to the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, denied the initial reports and claimed that Astiyazh and Amir had been sentenced to five years in prison.

The couple’s family members say they have since been detained without access to a lawyer. 

Journalists arrested and sentenced

Since the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on September 16, 2022, which sparked this wave of protests, numerous journalists have been arrested in Iran. One of them is Vida Rabbani. She was arrested on September 23, 2022 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”.  

The judge that sentenced her also referred to a poem she posted on social media which equated Islamic prayer to kissing. According to the judge, this was a “desecration”.

Rabbani is not the only journalist arrested and sentenced harshly after being accused of acting against the regime. Since the outbreak of the protests in Iran, at least 67 journalists have been arrested, according to Iranian human rights organisations.

Ehsan Pirbernash is a journalist and humourist. He was arrested on October 28, 2022 and sentenced to 18 years in prison, on January 10, 2023. He was charged with “insulting Islam in a manner deemed blasphemous”, “inciting aggression against the Islamic Republic’s government” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic’s system” for making a satirical criticisms of the government. His sentence is the harshest sentence given to a journalist since these protests began. 

Nazila Maroufian is another journalist, arrested on October 30, 2022 after interviewing Mahsa Amini’s father. Maroufian was sentenced to two years suspended imprisonment for “propaganda against the state” and “inciting public opinion”. She was released on bail January 12, 2023.

Photo of Nazila Maroufian right after her release from prison, she shows a victory sign and has refused to wear a headscarf

Marzieh Amiri, another Iranian journalist, is now also on trial. She was arrested on October 31, 2022 and charged in her first trial with “assembly and collusion against national security” and “promoting immorality and prostitution”, allegedly because she wore her hair short, according to an account her sister posted on social media.

Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, two journalists who publicised Mahsa Amini’s death, have been in detention since October 26, 2022. They are charged with “assembly and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”, Iranian intelligence also accused them of spying for the United States and of having been trained by the CIA.

Among the arrested protesters, the names of 720 university students, 46 lawyers and 97 artists are also listed. Farahnaz Nazeri is one of the arrested artists who has already been sentenced. She was sentenced to ten years in prison for “incitement to war and murder”, “propaganda against the state” and “promoting immorality and prostitution”.

Tthere are also dozens of prisoners in Iran who face execution after being charged with crimes that carry the death penalty. So far, Iran has executed four protesters and 13 others are sentenced to death.

Most of these harsh sentences, especially the death penalties, have been issued based on no evidence other than confessions that are extorted under severe duress, according to Amnesty International.

On January 27, Amnesty International called on the Iranian authorities to halt the imminent execution of three young Iranians Arshia Takdastan, 18, Mehdi Mohammadifard, 19, and Javad Rouhi, 31. Amnesty International said: “The Iranian authorities must immediately quash the unjust convictions and death sentences of three young protesters, who were subjected to gruesome torture including floggings, electric shocks, being hung upside down and death threats at gunpoint.”

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