Congress Has a ‘Second Chance’ for Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform

Coauthored with Ed Chung of the Center for American Progress. This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on April 12, 2018.

The two of us are about as far apart politically as you can get — in fact, we agree on very little. And yet, for the last few years, we have agreed to work together on common-sense criminal justice reforms that safely reduce our bloated prison population. With April as “Second Chance Month”, we are taking the opportunity to make sure everyone knows that our partnership isn’t going anywhere.

It’s true that we have different perspectives, and different reasons for engaging in this important work. FreedomWorks remains deeply concerned about throwing good money after bad — enormous spending on long sentences that continue to result in high recidivism rates; meanwhile, the Center for American Progress is extremely troubled by the racial disparities in our system, and the generational incarceration that has obliterated poor and disadvantaged communities.

But the bottom line is that both of our organizations believe in more freedom and opportunity for all Americans. We believe that reforming absurd mandatory minimum sentences and expanding reentry policies that will help better prepare those currently incarcerated to successfully return to society are both necessary components to a more effective, efficient and fairer justice system. And we’re both concerned about the rhetoric surrounding the opioid crisis and the Trump administration’s proposal to pursue the death penalty for drug dealers, which is both bad policy and unconstitutional.

And our greatest champions on the Hill on both sides of the aisle aren’t wavering from their commitment for passing criminal justice reform, either. For years, elected leaders as conservative as Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and as progressive as Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have stood united in their desire to address our ballooning prison population — and they still do.

A recent markup of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) yielded the same favorable vote as the last committee vote on this legislation, and even those who voted against the legislation voiced support for some level of sentencing reform. Sen. Lee maintains that SRCA would receive 70 votes on the Senate floor, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would simply allow the bill to come to a vote.

And it would certainly be a smart political move. In a national poll conducted by the Justice Action Network this year, 85 percent of voters agreed that the main goal of our justice system should be rehabilitating people, and 87 percent support reforms to mandatory minimum sentences. It shouldn’t be surprising that some in Washington still don’t get it, as evidenced by their “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” rhetoric that reads more like a 1980’s news clip than an earnest solution to reform our justice system.

Outside the beltway, state legislatures across the country are passing criminal justice reform bills by huge bipartisan margins.

In Pennsylvania, the state Senate unanimously passed a first-of-its-kind “clean slate” bill with bipartisan sponsorship that provides for automatic record-sealing for certain individuals. A similar bill was just approved by the House Judiciary committee with bipartisan support. Ohio just expanded a program in the budget that allows for targeted community alternatives to prison for thousands of offenders, and the legislature is likely to pass a bill with bipartisan sponsorship that includes parole reforms and expanded record sealing.

And after two years of enacting bipartisan-supported policies that included a ban the box executive order, a felony expungement bill, and a broad reentry package, Kentucky is poised to become the first state in the nation to pass a “Dignity” bill, which bans the shackling of pregnant women, improves conditions for all incarcerated women, and expands treatment for women suffering from addiction.

The state reform success story will be difficult for the few (but vocal) opponents of federal sentencing reform to counter: Over the past decade, the 10 states that have most significantly reduced their incarcerated populations have seen an average 19 percent drop in their crime rates; conversely, the 10 states that have more significantly increased their incarcerated populations only saw an average 11 percent drop in their crime rates.

There is no doubt that the current federal climate presents new challenges for reform groups on the right and the left. And there is no question that our organizations have different narratives and sometimes different strategies. But the one constant in this work is that it cannot be successful without bipartisan support. Count our organizations among those who are working across the aisle to change laws and change lives, and after having come up short last year, Congress has a “second chance” to prove it can do the same, and pass comprehensive criminal justice reform that will reduce the federal prison population, save money, and, most importantly, make our communities safer.

Ed Chung is the vice president for justice reform for the Center for American Progress. Jason Pye is the vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.