Justice reform is still alive and well after Trump election

“If you succeed, then the country succeeds,” President Barack Obama told his soon-to-be successor, President-elect Donald Trump, and the American people during an Oval Office photo-op on Nov. 10, two days after President-elect Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

The two men met at the White House to begin coordinating details of the transition between administrations a day after Obama noted that his staff would extend to Trump the same courteous and respectful assistance that they had been given eight years earlier by then-President George W. Bush’s team.

{mosads}Like the nation itself, which split its total vote almost evenly between President-elect Trump and rival Secretary Hillary Clinton, the eight member organizations of the U.S. Justice Action Network had divergent reactions to the outcome. But even as some of our partners are happy and some disappointed, the justice-reform mission to which we are all committed remains unchanged. We will all continue working toward our common goal: reforming a badly broken justice system that incarcerates too many Americans at too high a cost, both fiscally and societally.

As our coalition demonstrates, support for reforming the justice system is broad, bipartisan, and spans the ideological spectrum. Indeed, the very makeup of our coalition ensures that regardless of who won the election, we continue to have a voice that can speak to the leaders and policymakers in our great nation.

The left and right may approach the issue from different perspectives, but they converge in agreement that we are wasting billions of state and federal tax dollars a year keeping certain offenders behind bars without an adequate public safety return.

There is also consensus on the need to rehabilitate offenders and enable their successful re-entry into civil society. We all recognize that by breaking down barriers for the formerly incarcerated so they can find jobs and support their families, these individuals will be less likely to return to crime.

None of that was changed by the outcomes of the November 8th presidential, congressional or state elections. In fact, opportunity looms large.

In late October, Trump released an action plan for what he hopes to accomplish in his first 100 days in office to fulfill his promise to “make America great again.”

He pledged to work with Congress on a plan that “reduces surging crime, drugs and violence by creating a task force on violent crime and increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police; increases resources for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to dismantle criminal gangs and put violent offenders behind bars.”

The good news is that there’s no need for Trump’s task force to reinvent the wheel here, because several states — many of them led by his fellow Republicans as governors — have led the charge in successfully reforming their respective criminal justice systems and refocusing correctional dollars on serious and violent offenders.

Red states from Texas to South Carolina to Kentucky and to Georgia have enjoyed well-documented successes by enacting common sense reforms to their justice systems that are safely reducing the populations of their jails and prisons, recidivism, and crime. As a result, these states are continuing to protect public safety while saving their taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

While Republican governors championed the reforms in many of these states, they were embraced by lawmakers of both parties. Leaders on both sides of the aisle recognized that justice reform is not soft on crime, but rather smart on crime.

Though you likely heard little about this on election night, justice reform champions up and down the ballot saw great successes. Most impressively, deep red Oklahoma took justice reform directly to the people, and Sooner State voters approved a pair of justice reform ballot initiatives at the same time that they elected President-elect Trump by a double-digit margin.

The results in Oklahoma comport with the findings of a September poll of 6,000 registered voters commissioned in 10 electoral battleground states, which found strong bipartisan support for justice reform in all of them.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, advocates of criminal justice reform emerged victorious, including Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah, Rob Portman of Ohio, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Senator Grassley’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), which was introduced in October of 2015, has grown its support to 36 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum, ranging from the conservative Senator Lee to Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a liberal Democrat. Senator Portman’s Second Chance Act Reauthorization and Senator Cory Booker and Senator Johnson’s Fair Chance Act haven’t received as much press attention, but still have strong bipartisan support.  

But if justice reform legislation moves in a “lame duck” session, it’s likely to start in the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan, also a big winner on election night, remains a staunch advocate for bringing reform bills to the floor for a vote. And many of his colleagues in the Republican House caucus who also back these policies will be back through “lame duck” and beyond, including Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, and Congressmen Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

And if all this isn’t encouragement enough, reform advocates should be reminded that Governor Mike Pence of Indiana — now the Vice President-elect — delivered a full-throated endorsement of justice reform at his debate with rival Tim Kaine just over a month before Election Day. “[W]e need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally. I signed criminal justice reform in the state of Indiana … and we’re very proud of it,” he said.

Additionally, one of the most influential advisers to the Trump campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is an aggressive champion of justice reform, as is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who initially ran Trump’s transition team.

In July 2015, Governor Christie, while running for the Republican presidential nomination that Trump ultimately won, noted that the U.S. has more people in jails and prisons than any other nation on earth. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said, “but that’s not an achievement I think any of us want.”

Moreover, the Republican National Committee’s platform applauded Republican governors and legislators leading the justice reform charge, citing in particular the “diversion of first-time, nonviolent offenders to community sentencing, accountability courts, drug courts, veterans treatment courts, and guidance by faith-based institutions with proven track records of rehabilitation.” 

As variants of the reforms have been and continue to be undertaken in many states, the platform added, “We urge the Congress to learn from what works.”

The confluence of all of these factors gives us hope that justice reform will finally get its long-overdue day in the sun. And we certainly hope that day is sooner rather than later, given the supportive comments from the aforementioned Trump surrogates. Congress can start the new administration off on the right foot by moving sentencing and corrections reform, second chances, and fair hiring legislation to a vote before the year’s end.

We hope the takeaway from this piece is this: the work to reform our broken justice system continues unabated, and because this new administration offers a fresh canvas to develop strong public safety policies, it’s important that every voice in this movement is at the table.

President Obama and President-elect Trump set the example for all of us, both emphasizing how important it is for the nation that the transition goes as smoothly and seamlessly as possible, especially considering how divisive the election itself was.

Further bridging the divide, Secretary Clinton said, “Donald Trump is going to be our president,” in her gracious concession speech on November 9th. “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”

Whether you celebrated or grieved on Election Day, that day has passed and new opportunity will present itself. I’m hopeful we will all heed Secretary Clinton’s words, and be open to seizing it.

Harris is executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.



Tags Barack Obama Bob Goodlatte Chris Christie Chuck Grassley criminal justice reforms Dick Durbin Donald Trump Donald Trump Election Hillary Clinton Jason Chaffetz Jim Sensenbrenner Mike Lee Mike Pence Paul Ryan prisons Rand Paul Rob Portman Ron Johnson Tim Kaine White House

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