The American people have spoken: Reform our criminal justice system

The American people have spoken: Reform our criminal justice system
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Now that the pomp and circumstance from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE’s first State of the Union address has dispersed, our country faces the hard realities of governing in an election year. A news cycle focused on what divides us, perpetual budget and government funding shortfalls, and a fear that every vote may be used in a negative TV ad threaten to squander any hope of legitimate bipartisan policymaking that will move our country in the right direction.

That difficult dynamic demands that Congress and the executive branch champion legislation that clears two critical hurdles: First, it needs to garner significant bipartisan support. Second, leaders need to be reassured that it will fall in line with the desires of the electorate.

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No issue meets those two standards more convincingly than criminal justice reform. Republicans and Democrats are both invested in fixing the justice system, which makes it difficult for either side to politicize this effort. That wouldn’t be smart politics anyway. Polls show widespread support for specific reforms that will lower the swelling prison population, save money, and make communities safer. This support is strong among voters in both parties, as well as Independents and women, who are swinging elections in this country.

Three-quarters of American voters think the country’s criminal justice system needs to be significantly improved, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by the conservative polling firm Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Justice Action Network. That conviction is shared equally among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Robert Blizzard, who conducted the poll, said, “I can’t think of a more positive issue to run on that has more bipartisan support.” His advice matters, as his firm polls for more than a quarter of the Republicans in the House.

The president gave justice reform a major boost when he told millions of Americans that opportunity should extend to everyone, even those in prison, and he called for second chances for returning citizens. Consider for a moment what a significant departure this language is from the “lock them up and throw away the key” rhetoric used in the past.

Congress must now stop using the president as an excuse not to bring criminal justice bills to a vote. The House and Senate are both expected to consider legislation later this year that would implement some of the reforms that voters crave, and the president’s words on the world’s grandest political stage gave Congress a clear runway to act.

Any credible pollster out there would tell members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to tackle this issue and “go big before you go home.” Voters, by wide margins, favor major changes to our criminal justice system. Nine out of 10 American voters believe we should break down the existing barriers that make it harder for people leaving jails to find work and support their families. Republicans are just as likely to hold that view as Democrats.

That is overwhelmingly good news for supporters of “ban the box” or “fair chance hiring” policies, which dozens of states have adopted that would prevent public employers from asking job applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime before they have a chance to explain their qualifications for the job. Two-thirds of all voters want Congress to enact this policy at the federal level, and Republican governors from Kentucky, Georgia, Arizona, Oklahoma and Indiana have recently taken up this cause.

Attitudes of Americans toward incarceration have shifted dramatically since a generation of Republicans and Democrats enacted tough-on-crime policies at the state and federal levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Voters now demand more policies that give judges and the justice system more discretion to tailor punishments specifically to individual crimes and cases.

One of the best examples of this shift is the overwhelming opposition to mandatory minimum sentences. Some 87 percent of voters want judges to have more discretion to sentence nonviolent offenders on a case-by-case basis rather than saddle them with formulaic sentencing requirements that have clogged our prisons with people convicted of nonviolent crimes. That includes 83 percent of Republicans.

It’s mind-boggling that this issue is controversial in Washington. Not only do Americans want to change how many people we lock up and for how long, they also want policies that will get them back on track. Some 85 percent of voters think the primary goal of our justice system should be to rehabilitate people so they can become productive, law-abiding members of society. Americans now understand that investing in more treatment rather than more prisons will ultimately make us all safer when these individuals do not return to crime.

Americans no longer believe everyone who commits a serious but nonviolent crime should automatically wind up in prison. Some 87 percent of voters would like governments at the state and federal levels to shift some of the money spent incarcerating nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs, like electronic monitoring, community service or probation. A majority 59 percent  feel strongly about it.

Budget concerns are one driver of these changing attitudes. American voters overwhelmingly believe we spend too much money locking people up, and should spend more on treating drug addiction, helping victims and preventing future crimes. Voters also want to see more oversight of prisons to ensure taxpayer funds are being spent responsibly.

These issues have strong support among men and women alike, but the numbers are particularly high among women. That matters, not only because women represent the fastest growing segment of the prison population, but also because as a voting bloc, women typically have more influence on the outcome of an election than men. That doesn’t mean this issue is all about politics, but doing the right thing is often a lot easier when people agree with you.

This election year is bound to produce plenty of partisan fireworks and distractions, and those tensions likely won’t ease by passing criminal justice reforms. But the president has spoken, and the American people have issued a mandate. So Congress, the floor is all yours. You are out of excuses for why you cannot send these bills there.

Holly Harris is executive director of the Justice Action Network.