Steven Morrison: Suggestions for systemic change in justice system

Steven Morrison is a law professor at the University of North Dakota who will argue a free speech case before the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of convicted murderer Charles Sisney, who says South Dakota's ban on pornographic material in prisons goes too far. (Contributed photo)

The recent murder of Grand Forks Officer Cody Holte by a civilian and the recent murder of George Floyd, a civilian, by a Minneapolis police officer imply two sides of the same law enforcement coin.

On one side is the fact that being a police officer in America is a dangerous, and sometimes deadly, job, and for this we ought to give police officers leeway in using necessary force to protect themselves and others.

On the other side is the fact that from the moment of an initial encounter between law enforcement and civilians to arrest, to prosecution, to sentencing, racial minorities in America are treated worse than white people, meaning they are stopped, searched, prosecuted, and sentenced at a higher rate and more harshly. This statistical fact controls for actual criminality, so this disparity is unwarranted.

To anyone who has studied the issue honestly, it becomes clear that there are two systems of American criminal justice — one for white people, which is much more lenient than the other one reserved for minorities.

What then, is to be done? It’s important to recognize that American criminal justice is a system, meaning that it is susceptible to systemic change. What, then, are the levers that enable systemic change? Here are four suggestions.


First, address the criminal codes that incarcerate nonviolent people. Primarily these are drug crimes, used to prosecute drug addicts and the people who deal drugs (who are often drug addicts themselves). These crimes often target addiction rather than protect public safety, and they are applied in racially discriminatory ways. The better route is to decriminalize drugs, and redirect criminal justice funding toward public awareness campaigns and treatment. Think of the largely successful campaign to decrease and control cigarette and tobacco use, beginning in the 1980s, for a model.

Second, couple addiction treatment funding with robust mental health funding, since there is a close connection between addiction, mental illness and criminal conduct.

Third, address the nature of police work. Officer training programs should move away from a “warrior” mindset toward one that stresses communication, de-escalation, and use of soft (i.e. persuasive and communicative) power. Keep in mind that officers should still be trained in use of force, because, as noted above, the job is often very dangerous.

Fourth, provide officers with incentives to obtain and continue their education. Consistent with the importance and danger of their jobs, their salary should, as a general rule, be doubled. Concomitant with this would come a better, more qualified applicant pool, continuing education obligations, and the social and financial recognition that officers’ jobs are important. Many officers have second jobs; a higher salary would allow them to go home at night and destress, rather than seek additional income.

These four suggestions are incomplete and will not solve the problem of police deaths, minority civilian deaths and racial disparities. They are, however, concrete steps that could be taken to reduce the heat coming from the tinderbox that is police-civilian relations today.

Steven R. Morrison is an associate professor of criminal law and UND School of Law. The opinions expressed herein do not necessary reflect the opinions of the law school or UND.

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