Voices – Dana Balter: Time to Reform the Criminal Legal System

America’s criminal legal system is unjust. It’s one of the power structures in this country that perpetuates racism. Changing this system is one of the reasons I want to serve in Congress. And I’m running against a man who doesn’t see the need to change it.

John Katko spent twenty years as part of the criminal legal system, working as a federal prosecutor. Did he fight the racism in the system when he was part of it? No. John Katko has been in Congress for almost six years. Has he ever stood up and said to his Congressional colleagues, “We’ve got to do something about racism in the criminal justice system and, because I was part of the system, I have a plan?” No. In fact, last year, Congress passed the first criminal justice reform bill in 20 years and John Katko’s name wasn’t even on it.

John Katko waited until after George Floyd’s murder sparked a, loud, sustained, powerful wave of demonstrations across the country to say…“It’s time for a conversation about race in this country.” He’s a little late. The time for that conversation was decades ago.

It’s time for action. And the House of Representatives took action quickly this past summer when they passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Congressman Katko voted against it. But he seems to think he’s done his job on this issue because, as he told a local reporter, he had a conversation with Rep. Karen Bass, the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, about police reform. I guess he really does think all we need is a conversation.

I believe we need aggressive reforms in our criminal legal system to end mass incarceration, increase community safety, and promote true justice. This will be a long and difficult process, but here are some important first steps:


  • Police Reform: Create a national use of force policy, demilitarize police departments, give citizen oversight boards real power, and require transparency in police union contracts.


  • End Mass Incarceration: Stop criminalizing poverty–we can’t condition someone’s freedom on the size of their bank account. Increase fairness in sentencing by ending mandatory minimums and three strikes laws. Legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions to begin to repair decades of damage done to communities of color.


  • Prison Reform: Shift the system’s focus from punishment to rehabilitation by providing adequate mental health and job training services in prisons. End the use of private prisons and detention centers because no one should ever make a profit off of depriving people of their freedom.

None of this will be possible until we are willing to stand up with one voice and say: Black Lives Matter.

Here in the 24th district, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, our Black communities and their allies marched and demonstrated and cried and demanded to be heard for months on end. I was part of many of those events. I listened to impassioned speeches calling for justice. I marched for miles. I chanted at the top of my lungs. I observed 8 minutes and 48 seconds of silence. I stood in solidarity to lend my presence, my support, and my voice because that is my obligation and my commitment.  To my great disappointment, Congressman John Katko was nowhere to be found. Despite finding the time to participate in two “Back the Blue” rallies this summer, he didn’t make the time to participate in a single one of the dozens of events with his constituents to acknowledge that Black lives matter.

Congressman Katko’s priorities are clear and they sure have nothing to do with valuing the lives of his Black constituents or taking meaningful action to address the systemic racism that continues to oppress people of color in our community.

It’s time for change.