Candidates take note: Strong bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform

Candidates take note: Strong bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform
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From the headlines these days, you might think that there is little that Republicans and Democrats agree on — but that is simply not true. After decades of failed policies and devastating consequences, Americans on both ends of the political spectrum strongly agree about the need for bold action to reform the nation’s drug and criminal justice policies. The question is: Will policymakers hear their unified voices urging action?

Polling recently conducted on behalf of Legal Action Center (LAC) found most Americans (71 percent) believe that treatment for addiction to opioids and other drugs should be readily available and affordable for all who need it, including 80 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans. Most Americans (67 percent) also believe we should treat addiction to opioids and other drugs more as a health problem than a criminal problem, including 78 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans. And there is strong support (61 percent) for expanding programs that send people arrested for drug use to treatment instead of prison.

As the polling makes clear, Americans recognize this essential truth: Addiction treatment is less expensive, more effective and simply more sensible than the current law enforcement approach, which has not worked, is racially biased and has devastated communities.

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Americans also recognize that only by helping formerly incarcerated people and others with criminal records be more successful in their reentry will we ensure they are able to access the employment, education, housing and public benefits necessary to become contributing members of their communities.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (62 percent) believe that we should provide legal protections that help individuals leaving prison reenter society and find employment, housing and educational opportunities, including 71 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans. A majority of Americans (56 percent) also support sealing non-violent criminal records after people complete their sentences to facilitate their successful reentry into society.

So how might policymakers turn this strong, bipartisan consensus into action? There are four critically important reforms that can dramatically improve our nation’s flawed drug and criminal justice policies.

First, we must expand access to care and, in doing so, ensure that treatment for addiction to opioids and other drugs is readily available and affordable for everyone who needs it. That means that all Americans should have access to the full continuum of evidence-based services and medications for all Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) in all communities; this includes early prevention efforts, treatment services and medications, and recovery supports to help people become and remain well. It also means that Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance plans must cover addiction treatment at levels equal to coverage for other health conditions such as cancer or diabetes.

Second, we need federal and state strategies that promote health-focused responses to addiction rather than punitive ones. To do so, we need to expand both the availability of treatment services and medications and harm reduction strategies (including syringe exchanges and the piloting of safe consumption sites) to improve health and reduce the risk of spreading HIV, hepatitis and other diseases. And we must discontinue the use of mandatory minimum sentences, which are ineffective and cause significantly greater harm to people who need care and support.

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Furthermore, we need a comprehensive system that will address SUD and mental health care needs in the community as part of a larger strategy to reverse mass incarceration and systemic racism.

Third, we must work to reverse mass incarceration and systemic racism while addressing the consequences. We must help people leaving prison and jail be more successful in their reentry by eliminating barriers to employment, education, housing, voting and public benefits. We should also expand programs that help them make a successful transition.

Fourth, the federal government and every state should automatically expunge criminal records after an appropriate period of time has passed so that those who have paid their debt to society have a fair chance to lead productive and law-abiding lives.

While Americans may be divided on a number of other issues, they are united when it comes to supporting policies that expand access to addiction treatment and reform outdated and counterproductive criminal justice policies.

Now is the time to make the additional investments necessary to ensure that addiction treatment is readily available and affordable to all who need it. And now is the time to promote the dignity of formerly incarcerated people and empower them to participate fully in society. Policymakers, including those vying for the White House, should take note — Americans are looking for bold action that will make the country healthier, stronger and more equitable.

Paul Samuels is the President of the Legal Action Center and Gabrielle de la Gueronniere is the Director of Policy. Established in 1973, the Legal Action Center is the only non-profit law and policy organization in the United States whose sole mission is to fight discrimination against people with histories of addiction, HIV/AIDS, or criminal records, and to advocate for sound public policies in these areas.