This commentary, written by Hilary O. Shelton & Derek Cohen, originally appeared in The News & Observer on March 31, 2016.
As North Carolina residents begin to engage in this election, Republicans and Democrats are split on many pressing issues – like how to handle the economy, what education policies to pursue or what national security policies will keep us safe. But there’s one issue many voters are united on – criminal justice reform.
Since one in three adults has a criminal record, nearly every American has a family member, loved one or neighbor who has, or who will, come in contact with the criminal justice system. These numbers are mind-boggling and create a huge financial burden to taxpayers who shoulder an enormous $80 billion price tag to maintain a prison system that winds up sending more and more people back to jail. Not to mention, the costs keep getting worse; taxpayer spending on those prisons has increased approximately 595 percent in the past 30 years.
Our bipartisan coalition, the U.S. Justice Action Network, came together to take action and showcase the growing support across the country for justice reform. We polled likely voters in North Carolina and five other key 2016 battleground states, and it’s clear there is a strong consensus on this issue. An overwhelming majority of likely voters in the Tar Heel state, regardless of political party, agree that the current criminal justice system imprisons too many for too long, mandatory minimum sentences should be replaced and judges should have greater discretion in determining sentences.
At a time when our federal prison system houses over 2.3 million Americans, it’s no surprise 69 percent of voters in North Carolina agree our federal prisons house too many non-violent criminals. And 71 percent of voters agree that the federal government is spending too much tax money keeping non-violent offenders behind bars.
These are levels of support any politician in office or running for office would envy. Some politicians have already gotten the message – since 2012, nearly two dozen states and over 100 local legislatures have passed bipartisan legislation to reform their own prison systems or make it easier for non-violent offenders to access resources like job training that help them reintegrate into society. These policies have driven down costs, reduced prison populations and reduced crime.
The good news is that Washington is listening and already discussing how to fix our federal prison system using many of the same ideas from the states, including in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The bill, currently being considered in the U.S. Senate, would reform federal sentencing guidelines to give judges more options when sentencing nonviolent criminals and give the formerly incarcerated better access to rehabilitation programs so those who leave prison don’t go back. It’s already been voted out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and bipartisan Congressional leaders and over 160 current and former leaders from the law enforcement community have all expressed interest in bringing the bill to a vote and passing it into law.
In fact, our poll shows how a large bipartisan majority of voters in North Carolina support many of the fixes proposed in the senate bill. For instance, 74 percent of voters favor moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” mandatory minimum system. And 77 percent of voters agree that the main goal of our criminal justice system should be rehabilitating criminals to become productive, law-abiding citizens. When it comes to helping released prisoners find jobs, 67 percent of voters agree the federal government should remove any barriers in that process.
Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, the numbers in support of criminal justice reform can’t be ignored. Voters in North Carolina and across the country realize that we have to act. In this divisive political climate, when Republicans and Democrats agree on both the problem and its solution, our leaders must take note. It’s time for Congress to move forward with these common sense reforms that are both smart policies, and smart politics.
Hilary O. Shelton is the NAACP Washington Bureau director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy. Derek Cohen is the deputy director of Right on Crime.