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My Turn: Clinton’s call for criminal justice reform rooted in old wisdom

Last modified: 6/14/2015 12:59:00 AM
When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently spoke about criminal justice reform at Columbia University, she sought to reintroduce to presidential politics a debate about the root causes of criminal behavior and the proper response to this behavior by the criminal justice system. In doing so, she endorsed a thoughtful and humane approach to questions surrounding crime and punishment that has deep roots in Western thought and growing support in New Hampshire.

Secretary Clinton’s powerful call to replace mass incarceration with a focus on education, creation of economic opportunities and rehabilitation honors both the wisdom of time-honored reform ideas and the exigencies of today’s national crisis, in which she lamented how “mothers and fathers . . . fear for their sons’ safety when they go off to school.”

Her campaign’s more recent focus on New Hampshire’s heroin epidemic illustrates a willingness to take on the intractable and difficult challenges of drug addiction in a manner we have not seen from a presidential candidate in recent times.

Poignantly, the presidential campaign year of 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of an important antecedent to Secretary Clinton’s address.

Writing in 1516, Saint Thomas More departed from the tradition of blaming an epidemic of crime in England on the moral shortcomings of individual criminals. More identified larger structural causes – lack of education and economic resources – that he believed led society to “first make thieves and then punish them?”

In her Columbia address, Secretary Clinton echoed this call to examine the impact of underlying societal forces on crime when she courageously stated: “You cannot talk about smart policing and reforming the criminal justice system if you also don’t talk about what’s needed to provide economic opportunity, better educational changes for young people, more support to families so they can do the best jobs they are capable of doing to help support their own children.” In doing so, she drew on a powerful reform insight no less valuable today than five centuries ago.

The overall approach encouraged by Secretary Clinton has particular resonance in our home state of New Hampshire. We both have devoted a substantial portion of our professional lives to working within New Hampshire’s criminal justice system and with those whose lives it touches. One of us did so as a homicide prosecutor, the other as a legal aid lawyer advocating on behalf of children.

We are proud that New Hampshire has been ahead of the curve in its openness to alternative forms of sentencing and diversion programs, including the use of drug courts and mental health courts, and the creation and implementation of our federal court’s visionary LASER (“Law abiding. Sober. Employed. Responsible.”) program.

As early as 2009, one corrections official noted that local detention centers had become the “dumping ground for mentally ill individuals” and that the implementation of New Hampshire’s mental health courts had resulted in a reduction in a portion of the jail population by diverting the mentally ill from jail to treatment.

In 2013, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College studied the drug court system in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, and concluded that these courts provided “critical rehabilitative support to drug addicts” and created “a system that promotes recovery, reduces recidivism, and saves money in the long run.”

This past week, the chief judge of the New Hampshire Superior Court called upon the Legislature to reauthorize funding for alternative treatment programs through the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, all but stating that public safety depends upon such programs. We doubt that Saint Thomas More would be surprised by these conclusions, and we are glad that Secretary Clinton acknowledged the success of these types of programs in her Columbia address.

Even with these successes, however, there is much work to be done around criminal justice reform, both in our home state and the country. The Center for Public Policy recently reported that New Hampshire ranks fifth in the United States in referring children to the police or courts for correction for misbehaving in school – issues that often do not merit law enforcement intervention. We are confident that Secretary Clinton, a devoted child advocate throughout her career, will address the issue of the “school-to-prison” pipeline and provide meaningful policy recommendations for this and similar challenges in the lead-up to November 2016.

We will be looking for other candidates to do the same and hope that our fellow New Hampshire voters will scrutinize the answers that all candidates provide to find the leader who can bring about meaningful criminal justice reform.

(Michael S. Lewis was an assistant attorney general with the New Hampshire Department of Justice, where he prosecuted homicides from 2007 through 2013. He is an attorney at Rath, Young and Pignatelli, P.C. Leah A. Plunkett served as a faculty member at Harvard Law School from 2011 to 2013. From 2007 to 2009, she served as the founding staff attorney of the Youth Law Project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which works with at-risk and court-involved juveniles. Lewis and Plunkett are married and live in Concord with their children.)


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