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Can Criminal Justice Reform Cross the Aisle?

With more than 30 years of experience as a police officer and public servant, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has encountered a fair share of public discontent. After witnessing the unrest that broke out in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers responsible for the brutal beating of Rodney King, the series of protests that gripped Oakland after the police officer that shot Oscar Grant was acquitted, and the chaos that rocked Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody, Batts has come to acknowledge that moments of mass protest about police brutality reflect the anger and frustrations of neglected communities and expose the ugly flaws of zero-tolerance policing for all to see.

“After seeing heightened policing lead to mass protest] I started to project out on how we were decimating communities,” Batts explained during his introductory remarks at a recent event hosted by New America and the Brennan Center for Justice. “What you saw in the past 60 days [in Baltimore] is a byproduct of some of the things that had taken place in a bygone era of mass arrest.”

In a year that has been marked by headline-grabbing stories and images of police violence, public focus on the relationships among race, policing, and punishment has been intense and public opinion on race relations have become increasingly negative. In this context, resolving the tensions that exist between police and the communities that they serve is a difficult task. But as encounters between the police and the public continue to dominate the news cycle and ratchet up pressure on law enforcement, Batts’s comments call attention to another dimension to the conversation that must be explored: enacting positive and sustainable policy reforms to the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice reform is “a big problem that defies political categorization or easy political answers,” explained moderator and New Models of Policy Change Program Director Heather Hurlburt. She was joined in conversation by Jamelle Bouie of Slate Magazine, Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center Justice Program , and Right on Crime Founder and Policy Director Marc Levin for a a discussion of how political polarization and the upcoming presidential election would influence legislative attempts at bipartisan criminal justice reform. The panelists quickly turned to the idea that even with the 2016 campaign season underway, criminal justice reform was an issue that could bring bipartisan coalitions together rather than pull them apart.

“The process of passing bills can be quite long, and the fact that coalitions are [beginning to] happen now doesn’t guarantee that something happens next month, next year, or even four years from now,” Bouie noted. “But the process is beginning now and that’s vital.”

Bouie’s acknowledgment of the foundations for bipartisan criminal justice legislation is timely. Last week U.S. Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act in the hopes of enacting criminal justice reforms at the federal level. While the SAFE Justice Act answers the demand for reform-minded legislation, the actual viability of a bill that is expected to “prioritize federal prison space for chronic and violent offenders, reduce recidivism through enhanced supervision of offenders in the community, and increase transparency and accountability throughout the system” remains to be seen.

The difficulty in promoting extensive criminal justice reforms at the federal level is nothing new for Levin, who directs the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in addition to this leadership of Right on Crime. Levin has made a name for himself as a member of the conservative wing in support of criminal justice reform, especially when that reform is connected to policy change at the state level.

“The reality is, you can take an issue at the state level and you may not see much difference between parties, or much polarization either,” Levin noted when discussing how some states have moved ahead of the federal government on criminal justice reform. “I think that we are in a better position to have this discussion.”

As the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, Chettiar worked with a broad range of politicians and likely presidential contenders to create Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice—a collection of essays about the legislative need for criminal justice reform. After editing the final version of Solutions, Chettiar recalled, she came to believe that “there is bipartisan consensus that we do need to reduce the size of our prison population.” She cautioned that politicians are divided on the exact nature of “how to do that and to what extent,” a tension evident nationally between more popular policy suggestions like sentencing reform for non-violent offenders and harder sells like eliminating the death penalty.

The panelists also highlighted a declining crime rate as a key factor in generating the ability to talk more openly about the oftentimes damaging outcomes of the criminal justice system. At a time where incarceration has increased even as the actual rates of documented criminal activity have decreased it has become politically dangerous to sustain the “tough on crime” rhetoric that dominated the 1990s. With less evidence for the need for an amped-up incarceration system, there is the potential for positive change from both sides of the aisle, especially in the case of politicians that, as Levin explained, “have had their views on criminal justice change over time” due to improved statistical data on the flaws present in the justice system. That both parties also need to garner support for the upcoming general election also helps keep the issue from becoming fractured along party lines for fear of turning off potential voters.

Despite this progress, the panelists were hesitant to dismiss the existence of any political polarization on criminal justice issues. Levin noted that adding conversations about effective policing to the mix may also muddy the waters a bit due to racialized perceptions of police officers, but commented that even if crime rates went back up slightly, the progress on the issue has been “pretty amazing.”

“Even if Washington doesn’t move legislatively on criminal justice issues, as long as national politicians aren’t trying to scare each other over crime and are speaking in favor of reform, I think that it just creates political conditions around the country for moving forward at the state level,” Bouie commented in an assessment of what comes next for criminal justice reform. “I really don’t think you can overstate how important it is that no one is trying to demagogue [on this issue].”


P.R. Lockhart