Political affiliation aside, it’s hard to ignore that the United States has long had a problem with mass incarceration that needs to be addressed.
Prison overcrowding has been a growing concern in the U.S. The World Prison Brief report shows that the United States leads the world in incarcerated individuals, with more than 2.2 million citizens behind bars.
Bipartisan legislation to reform the criminal justice system has been proposed at the congressional level numerous times. Proposals have been made which would reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for youth and non-violent offenders, adopt more strict gun control measures, and find more effective ways to rehabilitate offenders and successfully re-introduce them back into society.
Few attempts at criminal justice reform have been successful however, in part due to partisan disagreements under the Obama administration.
With the recent election of Donald Trump, a Republican House and Senate as well, and an impending conservative Supreme Court nomination, many liberals and leftists are beginning to wonder if this is the end of progressive progress when it comes to criminal justice reform.
It’s a valid concern, as Donald Trump ran on a platform that was notably “tough on crime.”
While on the campaign trail, Trump consistently advocated for raising minimum sentences for drug offenses in an effort to combat the recent heroin and opioid epidemic. While debating with Hillary Clinton, he suggested that police should be much more aggressive in fighting crime, arguing that stop-and-frisk policies ought to be implemented once again. He also twisted statistics to indicate that the murder rate is at a 45-year high despite the fact that the rate of violent crime is historically low. He’s also historically argued that aggressive policing including the use of the death penalty is one of “the most important form[s] of national defense.”
While his campaign promises leave much to be desired, all hope for criminal justice reform in the U.S. While it’s likely that the Obama administration’s attempts to curb racism in police forces will end under Trump’s reign, leftists and activists intent on implementing criminal justice reform can take solace in knowing that the federal government makes up just one small part of the criminal justice system as a whole.
“Consider incarceration, the big target of reform efforts. In the U.S., federal prisons house only 13 percent of the overall prison population,” journalist German Lopez writes. “That is, to be sure, a significant number in such a big system. But it’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things.”
While federal governments have previously tried to incentivize the states to adopt a certain number of criminal justice reforms, studies show that these efforts had little impact unless states were already keen on criminal justice reform.
Furthermore, almost all policing is done at the local level, meaning that for real impact to take place, reform must first happen at a community and state level. And while Trump may have won the nomination for president with his tough on crime stance, it seems as though a large part of the electorate is on board with criminal justice reform measures.
For example, voters in California, Massachusetts and Nevada passed measures that would legalize recreational marijuana use. In California and Oklahoma, initiatives to reduce prison sentence were passed. And in New Mexico, voters voted for reforms that ensure that individuals can’t be kept in jail simply because they are unable to post bail.
Additionally, there are a number of traditionally conservative states whose leadership has backed correctional reform. In Georgia, for example, Republican Governor Nathan Deal made criminal justice reform a priority, which helped to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders.
“Since taking office, I have spearheaded legislation to overhaul Georgia’s adult and juvenile criminal justice systems because we simply could not afford the continually increasing costs of incarceration,” Governor Deal wrote in an August 2014 press release. As a result, “substantially fewer African-Americans are being locked up in Georgia,” which he remarks is “a remarkable and historic change in a state that has long packed its prisons with disproportionate numbers of black offenders.”
While the idea of a Trump presidency has terrified many who are passionate about criminal justice reform, it’s clear that a significant portion of the general public understands the need for and supports criminal justice reform. Surveys by Vox confirm that 51 percent of respondents surveyed believed that “there [were] too many people in prison in the United States,” and 52 percent of respondents reported that “there are more effective, less expensive alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.”
Though many are right to be concerned about criminal justice reform at the federal level amidst a conservative House, Senate, and Presidency, it seems fairly clear that the public at large supports change in the criminal justice system. Since a bulk of the responsibilities for community policing are decided at the state and county level, voters will still have a significant say and can choose to push for needed reforms.