Criminal justice reform has quickly become one of the most in-demand, and perhaps highly debated, topics in modern-day. There are many sides to the conversation, as many individuals, communities, officials, and political parties have varying viewpoints on what criminal justice reform is, exactly, and what it should entail. However, one thing is clear: There is a need for change, to some extent, within the fabric of America’s criminal justice system—and, as a result, there is a call for professionals to help bring this change forth.
If you are passionate about criminal justice and the issues affecting modern America, know that you can make a difference. Many criminal justice professionals—working across law enforcement, courts, and corrections—help to influence change from directly within the system. These professionals help advocate for change from the inside out. They have dedicated their profession to making a positive impact in their communities.
A criminal justice career, and more specifically, a career in criminal justice reform, may be for you. In this article, we provide a detailed look at what criminal justice reform means in the United States today. We investigate the primary challenges affecting the system, explore the various criminal justice reform careers out there, and further, outline what it takes to get involved as an aspiring professional.
What is criminal justice reform?
Before delving into criminal justice reform, we must first understand the meaning of “reform” in itself. Reform is the action or process of making changes to improve something – such as a practice, system, or institution. Criminal justice reform, then, means changing and improving the criminal justice system.
In the United States, criminal justice reform is a call to address the structural issues embedded within law enforcement, corrections, and the courts’ system. Issues that are top-of-mind for many Americans include racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Advocates of criminal justice reform are aiming to shift the justice system away from overly harsh or punitive consequences, and in turn focus on efforts of prevention, rehabilitation, and restoration.
When we hear about criminal justice reform today, it is largely targeted at local and federal officials to make changes to any laws, policies, practices, and sentencing structures that are creating injustices in modern society. The call to reform is also designed to reduce the larger, detrimental effects of mass incarceration in America, on individuals, and on society as a whole. This leads us to the next question.
Why is there a call for criminal justice reform?
There is no undermining the purpose and value behind the U.S. criminal justice system. It helps keep Americans safe, every day, and ensures we are safeguarded against crime and threats in our lives. However, it’s worth recognizing that there are also issues embedded within the system itself. While society has evolved, not all policies, laws, and structures have evolved with it.
For example, practices like racial profiling and brutal force are still being used by some officers today. And the year 2020 shed light on this for many individuals. The tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black individuals by police force underlined the systemic injustices and racial disparities rooted within criminal justice. These fatalities, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed across the country, also highlighted the deep and dire need for change. For reform.
In addition to the harmful tactics used in some policing, particularly against BIPOC individuals, there are also major, racial disparities within our prison system. According to the latest census information, African Americans make up about 13% of the American population. However, that same group makes up almost 40% of the federal inmate population. This is largely due to the continuous, cyclical oppression – and in turn, the over-policing and profiling – faced by Black and brown communities. In fact, Black people are arrested at a rate more than three times that of white people.
The issue with incarceration stretches even further, however. The United States is home to less than five percent of the world’s population – and yet, we hold nearly 25 percent of global prisoners. There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States today; however, Americans are sentenced to jail about 10.6 million times per year. Far too many of those in prison (about 40 percent) are arrested and incarcerated with very little justification from public safety. Those who are released from prison, even those serving for small crimes, often face unjust circumstances coming out – such as no voting rights, trouble finding employment, and homelessness.
There are various perspectives and attitudes on criminal justice reform. However, in nearly all views, there is the commonality that change is needed in some shape or form. This, combined with the dedicated criminal justice reform careers out there, underscores its importance.
If you are here, you likely know of the many concerns surrounding the criminal justice system – and more than likely, you are ready to make a difference and to facilitate change. The question remains, where do you start? How do you get involved?
To start making an impact in criminal justice reform, you must start with research. Researching and understanding the varying viewpoints on reform is essential for those who wish to become involved and enter a criminal justice career. It is critical to evaluate your own opinions and assumptions, to hear from all sides of the conversation, and to understand the statistical facts around the criminal justice system today. Then, you will be ready to explore criminal justice careers, with more meaning and purpose.
Which careers will have the most impact on criminal justice reform?
You can volunteer and you can vote, but perhaps you want to play a larger role in criminal justice reform. If it is your passion, perhaps you want to make it your full-time profession, too. What can you do to advocate for change in the criminal justice field? Here are some impactful career options:
- Correctional Officer: Correctional officers oversee inmates and maintain order within prisons or correctional facilities. To be a positive change, you may support prisoners by helping them to develop good relationships, participate in healthy activities, develop key skill sets, and increase their access to various programs while incarcerated. These methods will prepare them for life after prison, and help set them up for success.
- Probation Officer: Probation officers work with criminal offenders through court diversion or re-entry programs. In this role, you will have the unique opportunity to connect convicted individuals with support in their communities, as well as help them establish employment, housing, or even join support groups, all to ensure they are successful after release.
- Prison Director: Prison directors oversee the management and operations of a correctional facility. In this role, you can contribute to real change by implementing programs and resources that help incarcerated individuals find meaning and prepare for life after incarceration. This might include bringing in educational resources, networking programs, and other positive activities that can help set them up for success.
- Police Officer: Police officers are responsible for enforcing laws, establishing order in communities, and arresting criminals, in order to safeguard the public. You can be the change needed in policing, by helping strengthen the connections and the trust between officers and the public. This is key to criminal justice reform.
- Police Chief: Police chiefs oversee police departments, and establish the policies and standards for officers to follow. In this role, you can promote reform by teaching policing techniques and implementing trainings for an entire department, helping to build stronger relations between your police officers and the greater community.
- Community Health Worker: In a community health role, you can help address the conditions faced by convicted individuals that are leaving the justice system. You may also work with communities that are debilitated by high crime rates and long-standing, systemic inequities. Community health workers help to implement programs that support these groups, encourage community engagement, and increase access to education, healthcare, and more.
- Clinician or Healthcare Support Worker: No matter whether you are a nurse, a mental health practitioner, a substance abuse counselor, or a healthcare administrator, you can make a change by supporting those individuals needing care inside our prisons, as well as those leaving the system and facing barriers to proper healthcare.
How to get started in a criminal justice career, and start making a difference:
If you recognize the importance of the criminal justice system and are interested in facilitating positive changes within it, you can launch your career today. A criminal justice school will give you the knowledge, skills, respect, and perspective needed to enter into the world of criminal justice reform professionally. At Goodwin University, for example, graduates walk away with their degree along with an understanding of:
- The basic functions and structures within the U.S. criminal justice system, and with that, the juvenile justice system, Federal and State court systems, and systems of parole, probation, and community supervision.
- Criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal behavior, and tactics used in criminal investigations.
- The ethical and legal issues faced by modern criminal justice professionals, as well as those faced by today’s communities.
- The basic issues and problems in policing, the courts, and corrections in America.
Whether you wish to become a police officer, working to establish stronger bonds with your community, or a prison director, implementing direct change for convicted individuals, a criminal justice degree can be an incredible starting point. Gathering foundational knowledge about the history of the criminal justice system in the United States, as well as the contemporary issues faced by professionals and communities alike, is key before launching any role related to reform.
To learn about the criminal justice programs at Goodwin University, you can request information online here. You may also call 800-889-3282 for more information.
Goodwin University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), formerly known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Goodwin University was founded in 1999, with the goal of serving a diverse student population with career-focused degree programs that lead to strong employment outcomes.