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Dem and GOP voters in key states want criminal justice reform, poll shows

Survey shows bipartisan agreement on need for fairer sentencing, better rehabilitation efforts in six crucial states

Most Democratic and Republican voters in six crucial election-year states agree that the U.S. criminal justice system locks up too many nonviolent offenders and does too little to help them once they get out, according to poll results released Wednesday.

The survey by the Justice Action Network (JAN), a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice reform group, found consistent support for softening sentencing practices, drug laws and the way criminal records affect people after they serve their time.

To produce the survey, JAN said it partnered with the The Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, to ensure GOP politicians on the campaign trail and Capitol Hill are aware of the results.

“This poll shows that criminal justice reform is not just smart policy, it’s also smart politics,” said JAN Executive Director Holly Harris. “Members on the Hill shouldn’t be afraid of voting for reform. They should be afraid of voting against it.”

About two-thirds of voters — polled by phone in mid-January in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin — said the criminal justice system is unjust and too costly. Harris says she was surprised by the high levels of bipartisan support for reform. Pollsters spoke to 500 people in each state but Florida, where they interviewed 600.

The study directed questions to a representative sample of ages, demographic groups and political affiliations in each state, a JAM representative said. 

Harris said there is also broad support for reform among JAN members, which include rights and fiscal responsibility advocacy groups on the left and right. Many Republicans want to see prison populations drop because mass incarceration costs taxpayers billions each year, Harris said, adding that many Democrats argue that that poor and minority populations are jailed at higher rates than white people, often for nonviolent offenses.

The poll asked respondents to react to the following statement: “Some people say that our criminal justice systems needs to be reformed. We keep too many people in prison for too long with mandatory minimum sentences that give too much power to bureaucrats instead of allowing judges to make individual decisions about sentencing.”

In Florida, 67 percent of respondents said they agreed; in North Carolina, 57 percent; in Nevada, 64 percent; in Kentucky, 60 percent; in Missouri, 61 percent; and in Wisconsin, 66 percent. Giving judges more discretion in sentencing garnered even higher support, with an average of 75 percent for each state. The poll found that Republicans and Democrats support change at similar rates. 

Harris says that reducing or eliminating criminal sentences for nonviolent drug offenses is one way to address the issue, along with eliminating criminal records that keep people from finding jobs and re-entering society.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made criminal justice reform important parts of their stump speeches and campaign platforms. Republicans have been less vocal, with the notable exception of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who dropped out of the race after failing to gain widespread support.  

On Wednesday, Clinton announced her plan for a $125 billion program to help black and Latino communities deal with the legacy of mass incarceration, through measures such as job-training programs. The New York Times quoted her as telling an audience in Harlem that her program would aid “places where people of color and the poor have been left out and left behind ... places like Harlem and rural South Carolina.”

The Democratic caucus in Nevada on Feb. 20 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 27 loom large for Clinton, as tests of what her campaign calls a “firewall” of support among communities of color. She fared worse than expected against Sanders in the Iowa caucus, and endured a landslide loss against him in New Hampshire primary.

But Sanders may be a better choice for criminal justice reform advocates, said retired New Jersey Police Officer De Lacy Davis, head of the National Coalition for Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability (NCLEOJRA), which pushes for better police-community relations. 

Davis said that full reform needs to start with how police interact with communities they serve, and that police shouldn’t upend young people’s futures by marking them with criminal records for life. Dealing with the consequences of mass incarceration is not enough, he said, contending that reform must happen on the street — where the problem starts. 

“Without endorsing any candidate, I think Bernie Sanders has made criminal justice reform a cornerstone of his platform,” Davis said.

In contrast to Clinton, who is more reluctant to soften federal marijuana laws, Sanders has offered full-throated support for ending prohibition. Laws criminalizing pot possession affect black people and Latinos at higher rates than white people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Davis also said he believes Sanders’ plans for reducing the prison population don’t have the stain of the tough-on-crime policies that Bill and Hillary Clinton pushed for in 1994.

But Joe Giacalone, a former New York Police Department sergeant and current professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, said that rehabilitation should be a priority — and that he doesn’t see either candidate as offering a complete solution. He said he is skeptical of efforts to spring prisoners early. The reality, he believes, is that many people enter prison as nonviolent offenders but become more dangerous during their time inside.

I have “zero confidence on either side,” he said, then quoted a 1972 song by U.S. rock band Stealers Wheel: “It’s like, ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.' That’s basically it.”

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