What we have right now, the explosion in the American criminal justice system over the last 40 years, is unprecedented anywhere in the world.
We incarcerate 25% of the people incarcerated throughout the world, even though we only have 5% percent of the world’s population. No one’s even close to what we’ve done. And what General Holder was saying is we’re getting a lousy return on that investment. It’s not sustainable and we need to rethink it.
– Stephen Bush, Chief Shelby County Public Defender
Chief Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush appeared on WKNO’s “Behind the Headlines” to address the significant criminal justice reforms recently proposed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The reforms included avoiding charges with mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses at the federal level.
Holder also took on racial disparities in our criminal justice system and prison overcrowding. This marks the most significant shift in U.S. sentencing reform since the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
On WKNO, Bush voiced hope that this shift at the federal level will ripple down to the state and local level. One example would be decriminalizing some driving offenses, such as driving on a suspended license due to unpaid traffic tickets:
The volume that’s coming through the system is incredible, and it creates all sorts of problems throughout. We should look thoughtfully at the legislative level about what we can do. We could lop 20% to a third of the volume off the low end of the criminal justice system if we could find something other to do with people who have driving offenses, something other than to arrest, charge them and bring them in to the system.
That would reduce a significant amount of demand on your public defender system so that we could do a higher grade of work for people in terms of navigating them to creative, thoughtful and effective alternatives to incarceration.
Bush was a guest on the show alongside County Corrections Division director James Coleman. You can watch the entire show here:
You can also read this story about the “Behind the Headlines” show that was published in the Memphis Daily News.