For the first time in years, fixing our broken criminal justice system has been at the top of the political agenda in 2015. Politicians in Washington are getting close to passing wide-ranging reforms of mass incarceration policies, state officials are reducing sentences and easing employment for ex-cons, and even police officers and prosecutors are supporting reform efforts.
"Momentum is at a zenith for criminal justice reform, and we believe this momentum will continue," Holly Harris, Executive Director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, told reporters on a conference call last week.
There's still a lot of work to do to make things fairer for the 2.4 million people behind bars in America. But here are seven reasons that 2015 will be remembered as a turning point for criminal justice reform:
Criminal justice reform was a rare bipartisan breakthrough in a gridlocked Washington this year. In early October, a group of Senators introduced a bill that would reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes and help inmates readjust after getting out of prison. A House bill was introduced soon after.
Since then, both bills have been voted out of their respective committees with bipartisan support, and the Senate bill has 30 co-sponsors. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have vowed to bring reform legislation up for floor votes in their chambers. And President Barack Obama has said he "strongly supports" the Senate draft. Observers believe he'll have a bill on his desk early next year.
Federal legislative action can only go so far—the vast majority of inmates in the U.S. are in state prisons, and aren't affected by congressional action. And some activists have noted that the current version of the House bill could make it more difficult for prosecutors to charge white-collar criminals. But passing strong bipartisan reform legislation would be a huge victory for reformers, and there's been more progress toward that in 2015 than any other year in recent memory.
On July 16, President Obama did something no sitting president before him had ever done: walk into a federal prison. He toured El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., and met with inmates there for an HBO documentary.
Of course, the visit was a completely symbolic action, but it was a powerful symbol nonetheless. And in 2015, Obama's advocacy for criminal justice reform went beyond just symbols and speeches. After years of being criticized for being stingy in his use of the presidential pardon power, he commuted the sentences of 163 inmates in the last 12 months. The vast majority of them had been in prison for decades for nonviolent drug crimes, and some had been serving life sentences.
During his presidency, Obama has now granted 184 clemencies—more than the past four presidents combined. While some advocates were hoping for even more drastic action, that's nothing to sneeze at, and he has a year left to rack up his numbers.
Obama has also used his bully pulpit to advocate for reforming the justice system, crisscrossing the country to urge changes at the state level in a series of major speeches. As he announced 95 more clemencies earlier this month, Obama hailed efforts "to create a criminal justice system that is more fair, more evenhanded, more proportionate, and is smarter about how we reduce crime."
The most chilling punishment in the American incarceration system might be solitary confinement. This year, two states with two of the largest prison populations in the country announced major reforms of how many inmates are kept in solitary and how they're treated there.
In September, California agreed to return almost 2,000 inmates from solitary to the general population, ending a policy that kept some inmates convicted of gang-related crimes in solitary just because of their offenses. And just last week, New York announced it would reduce its solitary population, limit the time inmates spent in solitary, and let those inmates have more recreation and phone calls. (The details of that agreement are still being finalized.)
"The reforms are significant, but there's a long way to go," Jean Casella, the co-founder of the advocacy group Solitary Watch, told me. "The vast majority of people in solitary"—about 100,000 people around the U.S.—"will remain in solitary despite these encouraging reforms," she said.
Even once people get out of prison, they still face difficulties at finding work or housing, thanks to their criminal record. "Criminal records can be a life sentence to poverty," said Rebecca Vallas, Director of Policy at the liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress.
A movement to change that is gaining steam around the country. Activists want to "ban the box," or the checkbox on job applications asking applicants if they have a criminal record.
In 2015, Obama took executive action to ban the box on all federal job applications. Six states also adopted hiring policies that banned the box—Georgia, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Ohio. Today, a total of 19 states and more than 100 cities have ban the box policies on the books, Vallas said.
Other states are taking novel strategies to help people with criminal records. In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo pardoned 10,000 nonviolent youthful offenders, effectively erasing their juvenile records. And in Texas, legislators are working on a law that would seal criminal records of many low-level offenders.
Can you name the seven members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission? Probably not. But this obscure judicial panel had a big impact on the lives of several thousand prisoners when sentencing reforms they passed went into effect this fall. The board's actions to quietly reduce sentencing for drug crimes meant that more than 6,000 prisoners were released from federal prison (although a substantial number of them were immediately deported). People who had faced decades-long sentences for possession or sale charges got months or years off their time.
Several thousand more inmates are expected to benefit from the sentencing panel's reforms over the next few years.
For years, calling any inmate has been an expensive proposition. Phone call fees piled up, and some families paid hundreds of dollars a month just to be able to talk on the phone with their loved ones.
That changed when the Federal Communications Commission voted in October to set strict caps on how much companies can charge inmates for phone calls. Now, inmates will only be charged 11 cents per minute for all state and federal prisons, and exorbitant secondary fees are not allowed.
This isn't just about chatting with mom and dad: Phone contact between inmates and their families has been shown to reduce recidivism and help inmates transition back to their communities.
One of the biggest reasons that prison populations swelled around the country over the last couple decades ultimately goes back to politics. No candidate for elected office wants to look weak on crime—so instead they race to outline the toughest, most drastic criminal justice policies.
The 2016 election is shaping up to be a different story. On both sides of the aisle, candidates have staked out pro-reform policies. Hillary Clinton vowed to undo some of the tough-on-crime policies put in place during her husband's administration. Marco Rubio has called for a "thorough review of our entire criminal code." Even Chris Christie has said he wants to rethink bail to allow more nonviolent offenders to stay out of jail while they wait for trial.
Not everyone is on board. "We're going to get rid of those gang members so fast your head will spin," Donald Trump has said. Ted Cruz has harshly criticized the Senate bill for letting "career criminals" go free, even though he has previously advocated for efforts to reduce mandatory minimums and give judges more discretion on sentencing.
But overall, it seems likely that the next occupant of the Oval Office will be want to continue the kind of reforms we've seen in 2015.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.