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Republicans Chew On Criminal Justice Reform


On the second day of the Republican National Convention, the U.S. Justice Action Network together with GOPAC Education Fund sponsored a governor’s forum on criminal justice reform. The event featured governors Matthew Bevin of Kentucky, Nathan Deal of Georgia, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, all of whom are leading their states to reform a criminal justice system rife with overly strict sentencing laws and high rates of incarceration and recidivism.

The event focused on the need to give those who were formerly imprisoned a chance for redemption and restore their dignity. If you rob a person of their dignity, you’re dehumanizing them, Bevin said. They become less able to support their families and contribute to their communities.

Justice reform, in this context, is about breaking the cycle that too often occurs with repeat offenders and the generational effect of recidivism. Fallin said 85 percent of incarcerated women in Oklahoma have children. Many are single mothers, forcing kids into state care and increasing their own chances of criminal activity.

Deal supports alternative programs like accountability courts and other efforts that divert individuals to avoid prison time. For him, education reform is “the ultimate criminal justice reform,” given that recidivism is correlated with dropping out of high school.

Getting Into the Nitty Gritty

During her tenure as governor, Fallin has looked into uneven sentencing between individuals, passed a law allowing those who’ve committed certain low-risk crimes to get back their driver’s licenses so they can get back to work, and signed an executive order to “ban the box” from state employment applications. She is also pushing for district attorneys to prosecute more misdemeanors than felonies.

She points out one of the major problems with incarcerated people who commit non-violent crimes—especially those involving substance abuse or mental health problems—is that they come out of prison worse off and more likely to engage in criminal activity.

Bevin, who hasn’t been in office as long as Fallin and Deal, signed an expungement bill for non-violent offenders that finally passed after several failed efforts to get it through the Kentucky legislature. He encouraged other states’ lawmakers to rise above partisanship and work together on this issue, as he and his colleagues did.

All three governors also focused on the financial aspect of justice reform. Our overstuffed prison system costs taxpayers upwards of $80 billion a year, with a $19,000 average annual cost per prisoner. Justice reform is another way to be fiscally conservative and cut state budgets.

That’s partly why the issue made it onto the Republican 2016 platform, with praise for Republican governors who implemented criminal justice reform, and support for alternatives to prison like drug courts and vocational and educational programs for prisoners. Yet the GOP platform still supports the death penalty, a controversial topic for justice reformers, and while making a nod toward the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders, the party largely supports the policy as a necessary part of law and order.

What the Rank-and-File Think

Out on the street at the convention there was much interest in criminal justice reform among conservatives. A man in his fifties wearing a rehab sticker said offenses involving drug and alcohol abuse should be addressed with taxpayer-sponsored rehabilitation centers, not prisons. A twenty-something man who was with his grandfather wasn’t initially familiar with justice reform, but said he thinks some people in prison shouldn’t be there because “they can’t heal there.” According to him, people need different environments in order to change.

His grandfather is more concerned with states’ rights and the fact that there are “just too many laws.” That echoed what another man in his twenties, who was exercising his right to open carry, said about too many people being in prison for small stuff “while Hillary Clinton is walking free.”

Although many conservative states are leading justice reform, conservatives and Republicans on the street don’t necessarily support it, or even have it on their radar. Many are still attached to the 1980s and ‘90s tough-on-crime style of governance.

One middle-aged couple I spoke with outside a rally at the RNC was wary of what they see as leniency. Trump supporters both, they told me, “Criminals are criminals. You’ve got to obey the law,” although they were open to a narrow type of reform for first-time, non-violent offenders. The man with the rehab sticker said he’s absolutely for minimum sentencing for gun-related crimes.

Republicans often think of criminal justice reform as a liberal issue, one that’s soft on criminals and doesn’t hold people accountable for their actions. They fear this is just another leftist plot to break down society. Countering this narrative is a real challenge for justice reform advocates. Yes, laws need to be passed, but conservative culture also has to change organically. This takes time, and learning how contact with the justice and prison systems hurt those who’ve committed crimes, especially non-violent crimes, and their families.

How to Educate Your Citizens about Criminal Justice

The governors at the event addressed how to get Republicans on board with justice reform. Deal said, “One of the main purposes of government is to keep people safe,” and claimed the old methods aren’t doing that. According to him, people need to be told these reforms will make them more safe, not less. Bevin agreed, saying “criminal justice reform and the safety of communities go hand in hand.”

Money can also be a powerful tool to convince people of the need for justice reform. Fallin noted some alternative programs cost only $5,000 per person a year, as opposed to the average $19,000 annual bill for incarceration.

When asked how to convince conservative colleagues to get behind justice reform, Bevin said, “This is not a partisan issue. This is a human issue. Dignity transcends party.” He challenged audience members to go into a prison and get to know the people incarcerated there, because “the people in prisons look exactly like you.”

Such efforts among Republicans are largely unknown to younger, left-leaning Democrats like Melissa Hill of Minneapolis, who was in Cleveland to protest the RNC. She agrees that Democrat-controlled city governments and state legislatures have neglected criminal justice reform.

“They’re willing to lock all these people up for drug offenses, and also never seem to deny police funding for anything,” she says. Her friend, a black man from Cleveland named Will, agreed and added that it seemed like Democratic mayors, including Cleveland’s own mayor, Frank Jackson, don’t care about the Black Lives Matter movement or criminal justice reform in general.

But for all their disillusionment about Democratic action, neither had heard of Republican efforts to enact criminal justice reform in places like Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry closed three prisons during his final term in office.

There is momentum in the conservative movement for justice reform, not just in our leadership, but among the voters as well. It still has a long way to go, but this might be an issue that can transcend partisanship, that bane of American politics, and make a real difference in the lives of thousands of families in America.

Bevin ended his remarks by saying, “United we stand. Divided we fall. If ever there is an issue that embodies that… it is this issue.”