Transpartisan Cheer: Criminal Justice Reform

Transpartisan Note #107

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

Big stories often get lost in political chaos.  Example:  At 1:10 PM December 21st, the day the government shut down at midnight, President Trump signed the “First Step (Criminal Justice Reform) Act.” This initiative received bipartisan support passing the Senate 87/12 and the House 358/36 on December 18th and 20th respectively.  It has deep transpartisan roots.

The progressive Brennan Center for Justice opposed the bill’s original draft, then (after amendments) supported the final bill. It hailed the signing saying that “in a 2017 survey, 71 percent of Americans, including a majority of Trump voters, agreed about the importance of reducing the country’s prison population” —a key element of the reform bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) survey cited by the Brennen Center found that reducing the prison population was supported by 87 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Independents, and 57 percent of Republicans — including 52 percent of Trump voters. This is a transpartisan constituency.  We see such constituencies possible for other issues.

The ACLU survey also found that 91 percent of Americans say that the criminal justice system has problems that need fixing.  It cited:

68% (including 65% percent of Trump voters) more likely to vote for a candidate that supports reducing the prison population and using the savings in drug treatment and mental health programs;

72% more likely to vote for an elected official who supports eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws;

84% believing people with mental illness belong in mental health programs not prison;

71% agreeing that incarceration is often counterproductive to public safety;

66% recognizing racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Other signs of criminal justice reform’s transpartisan roots include:

Powerful opposing party Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the two senior members of the Senate Judiciary committee, campaigned for the effort.

The libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Freedom Partners supported by the Koch brothers backed the Act.

The conservative Heritage Foundation reported “Trump and Congress Earn a Conservative Victory With First Step Act.”

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and the National District Attorney’s Association (NDAA) supported the Act.

Progressive Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said of the Act: “Our country’s criminal justice system is broken – and it has been broken for decades. You cannot deny justice to any American without it affecting all Americans. That’s why the passage of the First Step Act tonight is so meaningful – it begins to right past wrongs that continue to deny justice to millions of Americans.”

Cato called the Law “bipartisan and cross-ideological” or, in our terms, transpartisan.  It wrote “Don’t Let the First Step Act Be the Last Step in Criminal Justice Reform.” Next Step? Cato identified coercive plea bargaining as perverse and pervasive. “It produces an alarming number of false convictions” and has led to “the near-elimination of the criminal jury trial.”

Transpartisan Criminal Justice reform moves forward. Even as daily demands create chaos, contention and misdirection transpartisan forces work on community problems. They work mostly outside the daily news spotlight (good news does not sell papers). The First Step Act’s path to law gives a road map on how transpartisan forces succeed.  Study it.  We are.

(Photo taken during the November 14th announcement of the First Step Act by a White House photographer.)

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