Spotlight Exclusives

States Lead Bi-Partisan Momentum on Criminal Justice Reform

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

Reforming the nation’s criminal justice systems enjoys significant bi-partisan support – but state legislatures will likely need to take the lead to make it happen. That was the message from speakers last week at the Center for American Progress (CAP) forum on How States Are Leading the Charge on Criminal Justice and Second Chance Policies.

The event opened with a conversation between CAP President Neera Tanden and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy (D), an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform both in his state and nationally. Malloy is currently urging the Connecticut legislature to support reforms to reduce the number of people jailed for their inability to afford bail. In his remarks, he drew on his history as the assistant district attorney in Brooklyn.

“I learned as a prosecutor that the criminal justice system doesn’t work for everyone,” said Malloy. “If you’re black or brown or you can’t afford an attorney or bail, you’re at a real disadvantage.”

During a wide-ranging discussion by a bipartisan panel of experts, one thing was clear: liberals and conservatives have a lot of common ground when it comes to ensuring the justice system works for the poorest Americans.

“There’s a popular view that conservatives are only interested in criminal justice issues to save money,” said Marc Levin, policy director of the conservative Right On Crime project. “I say budget savings are the appetizer, but the main course is public safety, redemption, and reducing poverty.”

Levin noted several issues on which the left and right could collaborate at the state level, including reducing court fines and fees levied against people who can’t afford to pay; occupational licensing reform to connect formerly incarcerated people to more jobs; and curbing the practice of civil asset forfeiture, where municipalities seize individuals’ property in the course of an arrest.

But the panelists also argued that policy alone won’t fix America’s criminal justice system.

“For long-term reform, we need a broader change in the American culture,” said Daryl Atkinson, the U.S. Department of Justice Second Chance Fellow. “We need a fundamental shift in the way we think about poor people and people with criminal records.”

Atkinson was formerly incarcerated and has since earned a law degree. He spent years advocating for second chance reforms and sees the potential for that culture shift in the near future.

“As more whites and conservatives see people proximate to them engage with the criminal justice system, which is happening right now with the opioid epidemic, more people become concerned with reform,” said Atkinson.

All panelists agreed: Fixing the justice system is critical for the poorest Americans.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘Why work on criminal justice reform, when your focus is on poverty?’ ” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity Program. “It’s because the truth is that just a misdemeanor – or even an arrest without a conviction – can be a life sentence to poverty in this country.”

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives