Politicians can’t reform the Criminal Justice System when they don’t even know what it does

There are plenty of things to laugh about regarding this weekend’s “Conservative Political Action Conference”, but I actually read a positive CPAC-related story. 

I have to admit, it just feels odd spotlighting a Florida politician with good intentions trying to get conservatives interested in Criminal Justice reform. It feels like talking about the Cleveland Browns being Super Bowl contenders. 

From Florida Politics:

Donalds, in his first term representing Florida’s 19th Congressional District, addressed the topic of criminal justice, both in messaging and policy.

With experience running for, and winning, contested primary elections in the Sunshine State, the Southwest Florida Republican made what he called “two very important acknowledgments” about the kind of policy people wanted.

‘First, a system that punishes and completes the punishment of those who do wrong,’ Donalds said.

But that punitive approach is only half of it, the Congressman added.

Conservatives should “’appreciate that people who have broken laws are still American citizens and there must be a conduit for them to come back into society.’”

I’m not knocking Rep. Donalds’s good intentions here, but the concept that this current system of punishment can ever somehow be “completed” is a foreign concept. to those running the system. Sure, some justice reforms have been made, but they’ve been largely symbolic and mostly for a select few criminal convictions. 

The highly touted First Step Act has a long list of crimes blocked from obtaining good time benefits, including nearly all sexually-based offenses. The Second Chance Act of 2008 also excluded sex offenses from any beneficial program it created. Registered Persons are banned from many jobs and public places, with some state being worse than others. Florida, the home state for Rep. Donalds, has an abysmally poor record for the treatment of Registered persons.

People convicted of sex offenses are routinely excluded from criminal justice reform measures. Meanwhile, legislators still find the time amidst the pandemic to expand sex offense registries or to add new prohibitions on the rights of Registered Persons.

Anti-Registry activists have stated for years that the punishment should end at the completion of a court-imposed sentence. But we like to pretend the sex offense registry is not punishment. We love to pretend that those indefinitely detained (Abu Ghraib-style) in “civil commitment programs” are “patients” receiving treatment. We continue to punish long after the completion of a court appointed sentence while simultaneously denying it is indeed punishment. If it looks, waddles, quacks, and floats like a duck, legislators and courts declare it is a cow. 

Well-meaning criminal justice reformists are seemingly unaware of the fact that the punishment doesn’t end the day someone is released from prison or supervision period. I don’t know if they are honestly ignorant or willfully overlooking the harm their laws have caused. 

Rep. Donalds told conservatives they should “want to be tough with crime but understanding of the condition of the human being,” to show that “opportunity even exists if you’re rebounding from the worst spot in your life. Everybody has the redemptive ability within them if they actually think the people around them want them to be redeemed.” 

Right now, that’s wishful thinking. Society has to change their viewpoint and it has to be addressed everywhere from the courts and legislators to the mass media. Despite our efforts in recent years, one look at the average comment section of a news story is enough evidence to prove we have a long ways to go. I haven’t forgotten that sex offense registry laws are heavily supported by both of our main political parties, either. Both parties have harmed Registered Citizens and their families by espousing nonsensical, revenge-driven laws.

Criminal justice reform is a noble idea, but unless we are included in that idea, then these words ring hollow. Still, it is refreshing to hear someone from the state with one of the worst track records for justice reforms say these words.