Polarized Politics Got You Down? Chill Out With Justice Reform

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Photo by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr

For those of us wary of political infighting, it’s been a tiresome few months.

Just the past few weeks alone featured the Iowa Caucus meltdown, the president’s State of the Union address, the Senate’s vote on impeachment and subsequent acquittal of the president, and speeches by Republicans and Democrats alike at the National Prayer Breakfast.

All were rife with displays of partisanship and tension.

Yet throughout the churlish political commentary, one thing has remained clear: President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with their respective parties, agree that bipartisan criminal justice reform is critical to the future of this country.

Indeed, Trump’s mention of the First Step Act — a criminal justice reform bill that included sentencing and reentry reform — was one of the few items to bring Democrats to their feet during his State of the Union address. Similarly, his account of the law’s impact on the lives of former prisoners was greeted with widespread applause from National Prayer Breakfast attendees.

Some have characterized bipartisan reform as a façade for meaningless political pandering, or decried it for being too limited in its scope. This is a shortsighted analysis.

Bipartisan reform is not only a practical necessity in addressing our nation’s problems with punishment; it’s also a powerful tool for reaching across ideological divisions — which can, in turn, lead to comprehensive reform on many other fronts.

For these reasons, all Americans — left or right — should embrace these efforts.

Let’s not forget the scope of the problem. The United States currently incarcerates around 2.3 million people. Over 1.3 million of those convicted are housed in state prisons, while another half a million who have yet to be deemed guilty or innocent sit in local jails awaiting trial. And although over 620,000 incarcerated individuals are released from prison every year, they face additional punishment in the form of significant barriers to employment, housing and education.

Given the reentry hurdles, many of these people will return to crime and incarceration after their initial release. A study incorporating data from 23 states estimated that roughly 37 percent of individuals released in 2012 returned to prison within three years.

And Virginia and South Carolina — the two states currently tied for the lowest rates of recidivism — still boast 23 percent rates each.

The problems we face in our justice system remain formidable. Prisons and jails across the country have become dens of violence and abuse, undermining civil rights and basic human dignity. Indeed, prisons in Alabama and Mississippi have garnered national attention for the poor conditions and gruesome events within their facilities.

It’s clear our system is broken. To fix it, we need all Americans — regardless of party — to reimagine the system and work for change; otherwise it simply won’t happen.

Our federal government is divided, with Republicans controlling the presidency and the Senate, and Democrats controlling the House. At the state level, 13 states feature a divided government, with no party in control of both legislative chambers and the governorship.

Even our communities and homes are split along political lines. According to the latest Gallup Poll, as of January 2020, about a quarter of Americans consider themselves Republican, a quarter are Democrats, and nearly half categorize themselves as an Independent.

Of course, the value of bipartisan criminal justice reform is not simply found in additional political clout or votes when a bill comes to the floor. It’s in citizens’ increased proximity to different ideas, individuals and perspectives.

Several years ago, few of us would have imagined the friendship shared between former lifer-turned-criminal-justice-advocate Alice Johnson and President Trump. Nor would we probably have thought that Trump — who campaigned as a traditional “tough-on-crime” candidate — would tout criminal justice reform as one of his key successes. His evolution on the issue was likely influenced by his proximity to people — first, to his son-in-law Jared Kushner (whose father was incarcerated), then to Alice Johnson, to formerly incarcerated Matthew Charles, and so on.

Once begun, these new kinships can spark a continued chain of reform.

President Trump signed the First Step Act and reauthorized the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act in 2018. The following year, Congress passed the Fair Chance Act, which orders agencies and federal contractors to wait to inquire about someone’s criminal history until after making a conditional offer of employment.

As an indication of how bipartisanship can address the discrimination facing the millions of Americans with criminal records, last year a record 152 bills to reduce barriers to reentry were passed last year in state legislatures, the District of Columbia and Congress.

Emily Mooney

Emily Mooney

Similarly, a bipartisan group of legislators is working to restore Pell grant access to prisoners, which would expand their opportunities for postsecondary education and increase public safety. This is more than just political pandering; this is real change that stands to benefit millions of Americans.

So while there’s no doubt the current political climate is frustrating, we must never forget that we can do more — and are indeed stronger — together rather than apart.

Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a resident criminal justice fellow at the R Street Institute. The R Street Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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