When it comes to excuses to pass over federal criminal justice reform, I have heard them all, from “it takes at least 10 years to pass legislation like this” to “there is no way move a criminal justice bill in an election year.” But the one that really burns me is “you cannot point to state success because the federal system is much more complicated.”
The arrogance of the Beltway is incredible. Of the more than 2.3 million people serving time behind bars in this country, more than 1.3 million are housed in state prisons, and about 615,000 sit in local jails. Only 225,000 are housed in a federal facility. The Texas prison system alone holds more inmates. State prison systems deal with overcrowding, stifling budget cuts, and drug epidemics that show no signs of abating. Because they can see and experience this crisis first hand, governors on the left and the right are passing strong criminal justice reforms that offer alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment programs, provide opportunities that put people back to work, and save millions of taxpayer dollars.
The journey to this point has been a tumultuous one. Earlier this year, the First Step Act, a pure prison reform bill, divided House Democrats, many of whom refused to vote for a bill that did not include reforms to unduly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Allies of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE, an opponent of reform, quietly whipped votes against the bill, and a few progressive senators even weighed in against the measure. Despite these challenges, and thanks to the leadership of the unlikely duo sponsoring the bill, Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE (R-Ga.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesAfter 35 years, Congress should finally end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine Democrats see light at end of tunnel on Biden agenda Sinema in Arizona as Democrats try to get spending-infrastructure deal MORE (D-N.Y.), the bill sailed to passage with massive bipartisan support. When the bill hit the Senate, Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyBipartisan lawmakers target judges' stock trading with new bill Another voice of reason retires Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter MORE (R-Iowa) stepped up to take a combination package to the White House that included sentencing reforms, unifying the reform community, and forcing Democrats to the table.
Now, in perhaps the most unlikely plot twist of all, Trump has given a thumbs up to the Senate deal. This support is made all the more powerful by the policy expertise of trusted White House aide Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerMcCain blasts Graham for refuting funeral remark about Kushner, Ivanka Trump Trump attacks Meghan McCain and her family McCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral MORE. Keenly aware that red states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky have made aggressive changes to their justice systems, including sentencing reforms and felony expungement laws, Kushner has showed the president these success stories. In this latest roundtable, Trump included the Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, who shared that reforms implemented in his state led to a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, which frees up valuable resources to fight dangerous crimes and reduce recidivism.
While the public safety benefits of reform are undoubtedly impressive to a “tough on crime” president, the overwhelming public support for these issues must be equally attractive. Voters across the country are looking to Congress to act. Polling from earlier this year shows that 75 percent of voters, a clear supermajority crossing all partisan, geographic, education, income, racial and ethnic boundaries, believe the criminal justice system needs to be reformed and support changes such as fixing our cash bail system and replacing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
In the final stretch to a Senate vote, do not be surprised to see this White House deploy its assets to the states to stump for a bill they know the American people want. There will be folks from every walk of life lining up behind them, from business leaders and military veterans to civil rights advocates and faith leaders. Just this week, people from 50 organizations of all political stripes and bipartisan senior legislative staff met to talk details. When the phone lines light up in offices all over Capitol Hill demanding a vote, Washington may well be out of excuses.
Holly Harris is executive director of the Justice Action Network.