America’s culture wars are as bitter as ever—and getting more so by the day. Yet one cultural issue is now bringing many of the combatants to the same table. Increasingly, groups on both the left and the right are putting aside their differences to call for reforms to our country’s broken criminal justice system. 

Earlier this year, a diverse and bipartisan group of organizations formed the “Coalition for Public Safety.” The coalition is comprised of groups such as the Faith and Freedom Coalition, where I am executive director, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, and others. Despite our disagreements on a host of public policies, we agree that the America’s criminal justice system is unreasonable, unjust, and even inhumane. 


Each participant in this coalition brings a different perspective to this issue. As social conservatives, we approach this issue as a matter of respecting the sanctity and dignity of human life, defending the family, encouraging hard work and personal responsibility, and helping the least among us. We believe the criminal justice system is failing in each of the areas. 

Where to start? Perhaps with the root of the criminal justice’s system’s problems: Over-criminalization. 

Over-zealous politicians in Washington, often in a well-intentioned zeal to promote public safety, have gone too far, creating a criminal code with an estimated 4,500 offenses--no one knows the exact number.  This number grows into the hundreds of thousands of when you factor in federal regulations with criminal penalties and state criminal laws.  Many of these laws do not deal with traditional criminal activity, and instead criminalize personal and regulatory behavior.  Making matters worse, many crimes are accompanied by non-negotiable “mandatory minimum” sentences, which force minor and first-time lawbreakers into specific prison sentences. Too often, this leads to punishments that do not fit the crime.  

The result? A criminal justice system that defies explanation—and damages society. Shockingly, the United States of America accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population, despite only having five percent of the world’s population. Currently some 2.2 million people sit in prisons across the country, a number that has grown by 500 percent in the past thirty years. At the federal level, the prison population has grown by nearly 800 percent in the past two decades alone, and three out of every five federal inmates were convicted of a non-violent crime, and over half are incarcerated for drug offenses.  By some estimates, nearly 50 percent of federal prisoners are serving excessive sentences. And overall, roughly one in three Americans now has a criminal record, along with the lifelong problems that often accompany it, including severely impacting the ability to get a job, occupational license, and housing. 

You don’t have to look hard to see how this harms Americans and society as a whole. 

The justice system can strip convicted criminals of their innate dignity, undermining the sanctity of human life that should be at the heart of our attempts to protect the public. It can demean individuals, who rot in jail rather than undergo the rehabilitation that would allow them to return to society and live normal, productive lives. It can rip apart communities and families, depriving children of their fathers and mothers at a critical time of life. And it can encourage a life of crime, leaving former inmates with little choice but to return to law-breaking ways.  To show how mass incarceration has distorted our priorities, on average the United States spends 3-4 times per capita more on incarcerating our citizens than educating our children. 

It also adds to the poor’s number every day. According to one recent study, incarceration “reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks, and annual earnings by 40 percent.” The study also found that an overwhelming percentage of low-income inmates—two-thirds—failed to rise out of poverty, even twenty years after their release. 

This helps explain why researchers have documented that “poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent in recent years” if “mass incarceration [had] not occurred.” And is it any wonder why former prisoners and inmates so often struggle with mental illness, drug addiction, vagrancy, and homelessness? 

This is not just, nor is it humane. Now it’s up to legislators, from both parties, to begin working together to reform the criminal justice system—to fix it so that it protects rather than harms American society. This is especially important for Republicans, who have too often ignored the communities that suffer the most from the justice system’s flaws. There are a number of places lawmakers can start, including reforming or ending mandatory minimums, re-evaluating many of the crimes on the federal books, and establishing new guidelines that make it difficult to add to the criminal code except in instances where an overwhelming majority of legislators—and Americans—agree.

One thing is certain: This reform process must begin soon. Too many individuals, families, and communities will never be whole until the criminal justice system is fixed. Our country may be divided on countless cultural issues, but this doesn’t have to be one of them. 

Head is the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.