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Voters are willing to think big on criminal justice

Voters are willing to think big on criminal justice
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With the 2020 election weeks away, it may feel like the nation is more divided than ever. But there’s one issue on which almost everyone agrees: criminal justice reform.

From the heartbreak and outcry we’ve seen from Kenosha to Minneapolis to Louisville to many other major cities this summer, it may seem like issues of racism, policing and criminalization are more controversial than ever, but data from a first-of-its-kind study proves otherwise.

America’s Safety Gaps Survey, commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice and created and executed by leading Republican and Democratic polling firms, demonstrated that despite what the news reports may indicate, Americans generally see eye-to-eye on issues of their public safety priorities. 

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When voters were asked about their top two safety priorities, more than 4 in 5 chose mental health responses, post-incarceration employment, community-based violence prevention programs, and crime victim services. Fewer than 1 in 5 chose jails and prisons. Additionally, 98 percent of voters agreed that jails and prisons were not their priority, among various government programs, to protect from spending cuts. 

Further, a majority of voters across party lines want to reduce over-incarceration and to make permanent the short-term changes enacted in some states to reduce the spread of COVID-19. These types of policies have bipartisan support, and the majority of support across gender, geography and age categories.

So if there’s such broad support for a new approach to criminal justice, why isn’t it happening? The Safety Gaps survey also polled survivors of crime and fewer than one-third said they got the support they needed to recover. Less than half of respondents with a mental health or addiction issue said they received treatment for it. And about half of people who had served time in prison said they received any rehabilitation, trauma recovery or mental health treatment as they worked to reenter society. The gap between what people need and what they’re getting is immense — and it’s a large part of what feeds the cycle of crime.

With such broad support for criminal justice reform, and community needs so evident, it’s time for Congress to come together in support of an approach to safety that has voters’ support and would change lives. 

One of us is an organizer who has spent decades working to support communities impacted by crime and violence. The other is a former U.S. Surgeon General with a long career in public health. Both of us are Black parents who live every day with the knowledge that the justice system works differently for families who look like ours. Together, we see a path forward that can prioritize the health and well-being of communities impacted by violence and crime. In caring for those communities, we can work to stop crime before the police are ever called.

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It’s always easiest to maintain the status quo. But the survey results demonstrate that voters are willing to think big on criminal justice and take bold steps, such as reallocating ineffective prison and jail spending to fund proven safety solutions — such as investing in trauma recovery, violence prevention, reentry programs and mental health treatment.  

Congress should reimagine our approach to public safety and allocate public funds to support proven safety solutions. There are three simple actions Congress and state legislatures can take to put us on a pathway to safety.

First, use evidence to support what works. Criminal justice spending is rarely backed by data on what is proven to actually work. That needs to change. 

Second, increase research and reporting on public safety. We need to understand the core vulnerabilities that communities face and then make public safety investments to close the gaps that prevent communities from being safe.

Third, shift public funds from ineffective to proven safety solutions. Rather than protecting funding for prisons and jails, let’s invest in prevention, recovery and treatment programs to help make our communities safer. 

We cannot erase decades of trauma in our past, but we can create shared safety solutions to set us on a path to the health and healing our communities so desperately need. 

Robert Rooks is the co-founder and CEO of Alliance for Safety and Justice. He is a longtime national criminal justice campaigner working to advance solutions to problems through sentencing reform, crime victim advocacy and new safety priorities. Follow him on Twitter @RobertRooks5.

Joycelyn Elders is a pediatrician and public health administrator who served as surgeon general of the U.S. (1993-1994) and currently is professor emerita of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.