Although Washington has long been consumed by partisan gridlock, a surprising bipartisan consensus is building in support for a long-overdue reform of our nation’s criminal justice system. This emerging bipartisan issue is bringing together elected officials from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and progress is slowly, but steadily being made.
I’m a conservative Republican who believes in getting results, which requires working across the aisle and finding common ground. I view criminal justice reform as a major policy area where the head and heart meet. It makes sense on so many levels, and when done right, criminal justice reform makes our communities safer, families stronger, and individuals more productive and prosperous.
I know this first-hand because when I was Speaker of the House in North Carolina, I led the successful passage of a number of criminal justice reforms. This included the Justice Reinvestment Act, sweeping legislation that focused on reducing recidivism and promoting public safety. We also passed a series of laws to reform the state’s juvenile justice system, including allowing a juvenile’s criminal record to be expunged of non-violent offenses and limiting detention for certain offenses.
Passing the Justice Reinvestment Act in North Carolina wasn’t always a sure thing, especially since it initially faced a fair amount of skepticism from the right, with concerns that the bill was “soft on crime.” However, the more we educated members on the policy, the more support we built. In the end, the legislation passed with broad bipartisan support, and the results have been a case study for how successful and transformative criminal justice reform can be.
North Carolina’s crime rate has decreased, the prison population has been reduced, prisons have been closed, and there has been significant, double-digit decrease in the recidivism rate. And on top of that, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety estimates that the law has also saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars over the last several years, with some of that money being reinvested in local communities to make them safer from crime.
I’m happy to report that, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, there are reasons to be optimistic that we can implement reforms at the federal level similar to those we made in North Carolina. There are a number of bipartisan proposals being pushed by senior leaders from both parties, including Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
The bipartisan proposals in Congress are placing a priority on rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of recidivism. It’s an acknowledgment that in addition to being the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. The bipartisan proposals are focusing on a number of policy solutions, including encouraging partnerships with faith-based and community organizations, and providing recidivism reduction programs to help low-risk inmates get educational opportunities, job training, and drug rehabilitation in order to succeed upon their release.
Another priority for Congress is ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system. There is growing support to revisit our current sentencing regime, and any changes must balance deterrence with fairness. Sentences should be calibrated to reflect the actual crime committed and the public safety threat posed by an individual, with no bias towards their race or socio-economic background.
Finally, given that the majority of the prison population are in state prison, Congress can help states modernize their prison system by funding projects like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The project assists states in analyzing and crafting evidence-based policy that promotes public safety and reduces state expenditures that can be reinvested in public safety and rehabilitation.
While getting a criminal justice reform bill passed and signed into law still faces some challenges, there is no doubt bipartisan momentum continues to build. We are at the point where some of the most conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are in agreement that we desperately need to cut crime, modernize outdated sentencing and corrections laws, and place a higher priority on rehabilitation. In the end, that’s not being “soft” on crime, it’s recognizing that justice requires fairness and opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation.