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It’s Time for Congress to Go Big on Criminal Justice Reform | Commentary

By Sarah Trumble Many congressional staffers hadn’t yet been born when convicted felon Willie Horton failed to return after a weekend furlough from prison, instead twice raping a woman, beating her fiancé and stealing a car. But that story -- and its effective use in the 1988 presidential election — still hangs over the heads of many members of Congress. As Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., describes it, “The ghost of Willie Horton has loomed over any conversation about sentencing reform for over 30 years.” But the politics of crime have significantly shifted over the past few years — and recent focus groups we conducted with Benenson Strategy Group provide just one of many data points. When asked to name the biggest hurdles to economic mobility in this country, one white, suburban woman outside of Pittsburg immediately pointed to our criminal justice policies, saying, “I think with crime, it’s just kind of ridiculous that we keep putting people in jail. ... I think a lot of these people would like to have jobs, and there are none, especially after you have any kind of criminal record. You’re not going to get anything that can actually pay anything to live.” That’s a far cry from how those groups would’ve talked in the 1980s.  

With this shift, not only is passing legislation on criminal justice reform a possibility for the first time since the 1990s Clinton crime bill, it’s also one of the only issues that can bring together both parties. In just the past year, we’ve seen bipartisan discussions in both congressional chambers, an alliance form between the uber-conservative Koch brothers and the liberal Center for American Progress, and bipartisan support in public opinion polls, with 77 percent of Americans in favor of ending mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders and 69 percent saying it’s important that we reduce our prison population. But despite this progress, the issue of criminal justice reform is still complicated. The residual fear that politicians associate with being labeled “soft on crime” creates a legitimate danger that Congress will pass something that merely looks like reform — without addressing the very real problems in our system — and simply declare victory.  

Luckily, there are already some great examples in the 114th Congress of bills that would bring about the real reforms our country needs. Sen. Gary Peters', D-Mich., bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission Act would offer a comprehensive approach: establishing the first National Criminal Justice Commission in 50 years to review the policies, practices, and costs of the criminal justice system and offer recommendations for desperately-needed reforms. Also promising is the bipartisan REDEEM Act from Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., which would address huge problems in the juvenile justice system, reduce recidivism, and improve re-entry policies for people released from jail after paying their debt to society.  

In the House, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Robert C. Scott, D-Va., have introduced the SAFE Justice Act, a bipartisan compromise that acts on the findings of the House Over-Criminalization Task Force by reforming the justice system at both the front and back end. And Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee, has introduced several bills to address the ways in which the justice system is currently failing our youth by offering alternatives to incarceration, expungement of certain records, and better treatment for juveniles behind bars.  

There is no one right way to reform the criminal justice system, but there are lots of ways to do it badly — and the most dangerous are thinking too small or doing nothing at all. Just focusing on narrow back end reforms — like offering early release to a small number of prisoners based on statistical risk-assessments — not only won’t fix the problem, but also create a real risk of bias that could make an already broken system even more unjust. Americans shouldn’t be satisfied with surface fixes, and making only minor tweaks would be a waste of this once-in-a-generation chance for real criminal justice reform. We’ve locked up Willie Horton and thrown away the key, and it’s high time we lock up and throw away the key to his influence over crime policy, too.  

Sarah Trumble is the senior policy counsel for Social Policy & Politics at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C.  

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