I've never been a single-issue voter, but if there were to be one single policy by which I judged candidates, criminal justice reform might just be that bellwether.
On a very basic level, one cannot simultaneously support fiscal conservatism, limited government, individual liberty and protecting the sanctity of human life (my fundamental principles) and also oppose criminal justice reform.
I didn't always see it this way, though. And the majority of other Republicans didn't either.
It was in 2014 that this issue first entered my consciousness and I slowly began to change my mind as I encountered more data, up-close experiences and information. Back then, most on the right shied away from criminal justice reform, at best; others were outright antagonistic. Notably, U.S. Senator Rand Paul has been a champion all along and deserves immense credit for the evolving beliefs of the right on this topic.
A mere six years later, we now find that 46% of Republicans either want a complete overhaul or major changes to our criminal justice system, with another 47% saying there should be at least some reform. Combined with the stark number of Democrats who feel the same, only 5% of the public see no need for change. The demand for criminal justice reform seems to be more of a "mandate" than anything else this election cycle.
As the mud of 2020 clears and it becomes apparent that the country will be hosting a Biden/Harris administration in the White House, many in the criminal justice reform movement are dismayed at the prospect of having two people in charge with such a checkered background on the issue. And to be clear, both Biden and Harris do have pretty terrible records on the subject.
In the era of "tough on crime" approaches to criminal justice — which were really just failed big government ideas — Biden sponsored and supported bills that created mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes and increased funding for the development of more state prisons. His support for the war on drugs helped fuel mass incarceration and the systemic racism so prevalent in our justice systems.
Harris is also far from innocent. On her way up the prosecutorial ladder — a progression that typically moves from prosecutor to district attorney to attorney general to higher office — she checked many of the typical boxes. She worked to uphold the death penalty, blocked evidence testing that could have exonerated an innocent man, advocated for harsher penalties and more aggressive sentences and worked to block people convicted of drug-related crimes from diversion programs.
Americans are right to criticize and condemn theses records. The scrutiny over the camp's newfound profession of a reform agenda, which includes calls to end the death penalty, expand diversion courts and eliminate mandatory minimums, is warranted. All too often, politicians pay lip service to popular policies in public while doing nothing, or even going in the opposite direction, once in power.
I don't know why Biden and Harris have changed their tune on criminal justice. I can't see what's in their hearts. Realistically, neither could have hoped for a shot at the Oval Office within the Democratic Party while running on their previous stances.
But whether their conversion is genuine or driven by the polls, we can at least be grateful for an open door on this subject and a rhetoric that sounds radically different than even a decade ago. Whereas ridiculous whispers of "soft on crime" used to be the death knell of a campaign, in 2020 we instead saw both major parties vying for the title of most pro-reform. The times they are a-changin'.
There's a real opportunity over the next four years for Biden and Harris to prove that their conversion on the topic is driven by more than their own self-interests. And while I understand the pessimism many feel over this prospect, I choose to remain hopeful and ready to work alongside them. Personally, I think the items laid out in their platform are exactly what is needed.
Most of us in the criminal justice reform movement got here by first changing our minds and realizing we were wrong in our former approaches to violence. We've (successfully) worked to change the hearts and minds of many others since then and were that not possible, we would not have gotten the legislative wins we have — nor would we see the pressing demand for them in the public square.
We need people who were once wrong on criminal justice reform to see the error in their ways, change direction and work for reform. Personally, I'm always rooting for a redemption story — be it the person who served time behind bars or the person who pushed bad crime bills under oath.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.
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