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Op-ed Placement

States Should Have No Fear on Justice Reform

BY Sarah Anderson
06/12/2019
Originally Published in Morning Consult by Sarah Anderson on 6/12/19.

The movement for criminal justice reform is permeating every corner of our lives. From prime-time discussions on major cable news channels to frequent mentions on local news stations, from Facebook timelines to dinner table discussions, the words “justice reform” have become familiar with individuals, students, families and communities across the country.

This popularization of justice reform is largely a result of its grand entrance to the national stage by the successful passage of the First Step Act. Directly associated with the push for the First Step Act were the both heartbreaking and inspiring stories of Alice Marie Johnson and Matthew Charles. These two stories alone quite literally changed hearts and minds on the way we approach incarceration in our country. Within a matter of months, Alice and Matthew found themselves both newly freed Americans and guests of President Donald Trump at his 2019 State of the Union Address, no less.

The left and the right, in an environment of intense political discord, have finally found something special in the issue of criminal justice reform. An issue to champion and make progress on in a productive, meaningful, agreeable and truly bipartisan way. With a long-standing seal of approval from most Democrats and a recent seal of approval from high-profile Republicans (including our very adamantly law-and-order president), safely reducing our overincarceration problem has become a political winner. This is icing on the cake, though, as implementing such reforms have much more powerful and humane impacts that far transcend political calculations.

All of this is to say that criminal justice reform is far from being a one-and-done deal, but thanks to its popularity, the movement is continuing. The First Step Act was just that — a first step. For the federal system, and for other prison systems across our country, there is much work to be done to ensure that our justice system is in fact rehabilitating its incarcerated population, which totals around 2.2 million nationwide.

The dozens of states that had implemented some type of justice reform before the First Step Act have now had their work validated by Congress and can continue their efforts to smartly reduce incarceration and crime. And for states that have not, the light is bright green. Reforming their justice systems should now be a cakewalk.

We have seen a swell in favor of criminal justice reform across some states already, as red and blue states alike realize that they need to follow in the footsteps of the federal government and get on board with the popularity of criminal justice reform.

In North Carolina and Florida, for example, state legislators championed support for their own “First Step” bills, to implement similar reforms from the federal First Step Act in their state justice systems, such as a safety valve. Some states, like Ohio and Mississippi, have seen pushes to reform certain sentencing laws and procedures for drug offenses. Others like Utah, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have capitalized on the widespread support for second chances, engaging on expungement and record sealing, probation and parole reform, and occupational licensing reform.

In states like Mississippi, Kentucky, Utah, and Oklahoma, these movements have been successful. And others have significant momentum behind them, such as Ohio, whose House Judiciary Committee recently heard testimony on their “Next Step Ohio” Act. In other states, however, like Florida, bills that would have been tremendous for reform unfortunately died in the legislative process.

To these states that lost out on the opportunity to reform their justice systems this year, the message should be clear: Try again, as soon as possible, and as boldly as possible. There is no danger for fallout — politically or otherwise — from supporting smart-on-crime justice reform efforts. The states that have done this know this, and fortunately are continuing to make headway into reforms that reduce prison populations, crime rates, and spending, all while increasing the value that returning citizens have in our communities.

The states that are lagging behind, however, must take a page out of the book both of other states that have seen the positive impacts of justice reform and of the federal government, whose champions of the First Step Act have been praised from all directions on their work on this issue. If there is one thing to be certain of, it is that smartly done criminal justice reform is a win-win, helping all and hurting none.