On Tuesday afternoon, President Barack Obama told NAACP members at their annual convention that the country is finally ready for comprehensive reform of our broken criminal justice system. “We cannot close our eyes anymore” to the cost in human lives destroyed and taxpayer dollars wasted, he said, “and the good news, and this is truly good news, is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think that we need to do something about this.”
The president is right, and the numbers bear this out all across this country, in blue and red states alike. In early June, the ACLU commissioned a nationwide poll of registered voters who are likely to vote in the 2016 presidential election. The results, released Wednesday, demonstrate that we have arrived at a bipartisan moment where majorities of Americans no longer believe our criminal justice system serves the common good.
Nearly seven out of 10 registered voters polled said the United States should begin to reduce the nation’s prison population, which accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And this majority isn’t composed of just Democrats and independents. Fifty-four percent of Republicans said it’s time to shrink the number of Americans serving time in prisons and jails, too.
Those polled also understand our public policies must be smarter. Eighty-seven percent agreed that drug addicts and people with serious mental illnesses don’t deserve to be behind bars but in treatment. They even know that our past desire to make prison the consequence of far too many crimes, no matter how big or small, has been counterproductive. Almost 80 percent of those polled agreed that funneling nonviolent offenders into prison won’t make their communities any safer because these institutions have a poor track record of rehabilitating people with serious addictions and mental illnesses.
President Obama also spoke morally of the need for second chances. Those polled believe this too. Approximately 60 percent said that “people who have committed serious crimes can turn their lives around and move away from a life of crime with the right kind of help.”
These numbers only confirm what I know is true from crisscrossing the country in pursuit of criminal justice reform. My travels have introduced me to people who have spent time behind bars, who are still behind bars, and who are sentenced to stay there for life. I’ve sat with Mississippi clergy and Oklahoma women separated from their children. I’ve listened to the family and loved ones of murder victims and met with police, prosecutors, and judges.
My conversations confirm what our polling numbers tell us: Americans are tired of a criminal justice system with only one tool in the toolbox, worn out from overuse and in desperate need of replacement. Americans want more effective options that reflect understanding that holding someone accountable doesn’t necessarily mean warehousing them in a cage, and that failing to provide individualized support for rehabilitation and re-engagement with community is pennywise and pound foolish. We spend $80 billion every year locking people up, and this number doesn’t capture the indirect costs to families, communities, and taxpayers that flow from failing to address the root causes of crime.
While this has truly been a historic week because of the White House’s very public embrace of criminal justice reform, we cannot forget that all roads do not lead to Washington. While the population of our federal prisons has exploded over the last four decades, they still only hold 200,000 people. Our state prisons and local jails hold 2 million.
Oklahoma, where President Obama will be visiting the El Reno prison today, has the third worst incarceration rate in the country overall, and the second worst if federal prisoners are removed from the calculation. Furthermore, it ranks first in incarceration rates for women, at a rate that is more than twice the national rate.
Even though the president rightly focuses on the devastation wrought by federal mandatory minimums for drug crimes, it is important to remember that where Congress led, the states followed. One in four people in state prison in Oklahoma is there for drug distribution or possession, with sentences averaging five years for possession and 10 years for distribution. Half of Oklahoma’s state prisoners are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense.
Reversing the last four decades’ explosion in incarceration rates may seem like an impossibly huge lift. It is true that the makeup of our jail and prison populations reflects deeply rooted patterns of poverty and racism in our communities, and some will argue that we will never be able to fix our broken criminal justice system unless we fix those problems first.
This is not so.
We can immediately implement reforms that will bring down the numbers of people behind bars; address untreated addiction, trauma, and mental illness; and help people with training, education, and jobs. These steps help people today and impact their standing in society tomorrow. Moreover, these steps will help bring us back in line with America’s promise of a just society that believes in both accountability and fairness, and mistakes and second chances.
Or as President Obama put it, “justice and redemption go hand in hand.”
By: Alison Holcomb Become a fan
Director, ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice
Alison Holcomb is the director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.