George Whitfield, age 56 and in prison for marijuana-related charges, uses a walker to walk back to his cell block at California State Prison, Solano, on December 16, 2013 in Vacaville, California. 
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty

Analysis: Listen to the people, schedule a vote on criminal justice reform

Watching the presidential election unfold, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that we live in a deeply divided country. And with a spotlight firmly placed on our differences, we are overlooking an area of remarkable bipartisan agreement and a real opportunity for progress this year — criminal justice reform.

According to a recent poll of registered voters released by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Americans across party lines and all demographics agree that our federal prison system is too big and too expensive. Voters believe we should change the way the federal system deals with drug offenders and take steps to reduce the total number of people serving time in federal prisons.

And there are proposals pending in Congress that would do just that.

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Last year, Congressman Bobby Scott and Jim Sensenbrenner joined forces to introduce the The SAFE Justice Act, one of the most comprehensive piece of federal justice reform legislation in decades. And leading Democrats and Republicans in the Senate reached a historic compromise, several years in the making, and introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Similar legislation was also introduced in the U.S. House, and boasts a long list of bipartisan co-sponsors and a promise from Speaker Paul Ryan for a vote this year. 

Conventional wisdom once told us that politicians can score points and earn votes by calling for a punitive approach to drug offenses and violent crimes alike — in both cases calling for harsher penalties and longer prison sentences. But recent data show us this view is wrong and outdated.

Public opinion has shifted — politicians running for re-election in November, and candidates seeking our nation’s highest public office should take note.

In Pew’s most recent poll, a clear majority of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, Latinos, African-Americans, seniors, young voters, and even law enforcement households believe that the federal prison system is too big, too expensive, and incarcerating too many drug offenders who pose little risk to public safety.

Voters in battleground states like Florida, Wisconsin, Kentucky and North Carolina have also voiced these concerns.

Across party lines and demographics, registered voters also agree that our current “one size fits all” approach to criminal sentencing does not work. Instead, 79 percent of voters support eliminating all mandatory minimum sentences and “letting judges judge” by giving them flexibility to determine the length of a prison sentence based on the specifics of each case. The same sentiment was expressed by early primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

And more than 85 percent of voters expressed support for allowing people in federal prison to earn time off of their sentences by participating in programs such as education and drug treatment, which can support their success and reduce recidivism.

Given the clear consensus among likely voters, the major bills in Congress don’t go nearly as far as what the public is calling for.

Even so, the proposals face significant opposition from a small group of Senate Republicans and are in danger of stalling. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept silent about the bill’s prospects, expressing concern about tight re-election bids and a “soft on crime” backlash in November.

If McConnell and other Senate Republicans looked closely at the data, they would see that passing federal criminal justice reforms is not only the right thing to do, it’s the politically smart thing to do.

It’s also good policy. Evidence from more than 30 states, many led by conservative governors, shows that by prioritizing law enforcement and corrections resources to focus on serious and repeat offenders rather than low-level drug offenders yields improvements to public safety and cost-savings for taxpayers.

“The argument has been won,” said Van Jones, CNN political contributor and co-founder of #cut50. Passing federal justice reforms would save money, positively impact public safety, further our national ideals and give individuals the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

It’s time for Congress to listen to the American people and take action by calling a vote. If they fail to do so, they may face a big bloc of unhappy voters come November.

Matt Haney is the president of the San Francisco Board of Education and a co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization led by former Obama White House adviser Van Jones.

Prison and Prison Reform

Analysis: Listen to the people, schedule a vote on criminal justice reform