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April 01, 2009

Time for Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform

by Neal R. Sonnett

I am delighted that this issue of Human Rights highlights both challenges and innovative solutions for the criminal justice system. As a former federal prosecutor and currently a criminal defense lawyer, and as a former chair of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section and still one of its representatives in the House of Delegates, much of my work in the ABA has been devoted to reform and improvement of the criminal justice system.

The ABA has been a major voice in this area for many years, but those efforts expanded exponentially after Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s address to the 2003 Annual Meeting, when he raised fundamental questions about the fairness and efficacy of criminal punishment in our country and challenged the ABA to help start a new public discussion about the prison system.

In response, then-President Dennis Archer created the Justice Kennedy Commission, which held hearings, consulted experts, and tendered a series of proposals that were overwhelmingly adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in August 2004. The work continued via a new Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions that brought additional proposals to the House of Delegates. The meaningful policy recommendations produced by these entities are well worth reading and are available at

In just the last six months, there has been a growing chorus of calls for criminal justice reform from a variety of other organizations. For example:

  • The Constitution Project, headed by Virginia Sloan (who also serves as special counsel to our Section Council), convened more than 25 organizations and individuals to produce a 263-page report, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress (
  • A report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America’s Broken Misdemeanor Courts ( concluded that eliminating prosecution for some petty offenses could save millions of dollars, strengthen public safety, and better protect the rights of defendants.
  • A Pew Center for the States study, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (, provides a blueprint for all fifty states to cut both crime and spending by reallocating prison expenses to fund stronger supervision of the large number of offenders in the community.

There are encouraging signs of progress. In March 2009, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, which would create a blue ribbon commission to undertake a top-to-bottom review of our entire criminal justice system and propose concrete, wide-ranging reforms. Webb’s proposal has garnered widespread support in and out of Congress, and the ABA House of Delegates will be asked to endorse his legislation during the Annual Meeting in Chicago in August.

The next months and years may provide the best chance yet for comprehensive national reform and improvement of our nation’s criminal justice system. Our Section and the ABA will continue to play a positive role in these efforts, which deserve the strong encouragement and support of all who respect individual rights and the rule of law.

Neal R. Sonnett

Neal R. Sonnett heads his own Miami, Florida, law firm that engages exclusively in the defense of white collar, business, and complex crimes nationwide. He is the chair of IRR for 2008–09.