Criminal Justice Reform Could Win Democrats Swing States

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By Jessica DaSilva

Aug. 2 — Repeated statements about criminal justice reform at the Democratic National Convention might indicate a tactical strategy to sway swing states—where voters overwhelmingly support reform efforts, according to the executive director of a bipartisan advocacy organization.

Polling conducted in February for the U.S. Justice Action Network revealed that criminal justice reform efforts are overwhelmingly supported by a majority of voters from all ideologies in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin.

The survey was led by the Tarrance Group, one of the most successful Republican research and polling firms in the nation, said Holly Harris, executive director of USJAN.

‘An Overwhelming Majority.'

The Tarrance Group's data showed five points of agreement from swing state voters:

• About 60 percent to 70 percent of voters agreed too many non-violent criminals spent time in federal prisons.

• Almost 70 percent favored the idea that too much federal tax money is spent on keeping non-violent offenders in prison.

• More than 70 percent think the main objective of criminal justice should focus on criminal rehabilitation.

• In five of the six states, more than 60 percent felt the “federal government should remove barriers that make it more difficult for released prisoners to find jobs.”

• About 75 percent of voters supported judicial discretion over mandatory minimums.

The Tarrance Group President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Goeas told Bloomberg BNA these numbers are significant because most issues see more polarization, with high intensity support for and against an issue.

“Not only are we getting a majority saying they agree from a values or policy standpoint, it’s an overwhelming majority of 2:1,” Goeas said.

The numbers for individual state responses are even higher in several categories, Harris told Bloomberg BNA. For example, 79 percent of Florida survey participants and 78 percent of Wisconsin participants support “rehabilitating criminals to become productive, law-abiding citizens.”

“I'm certain [the Democratic Party] sees the same polling as we do in battleground states,” Harris explained. “I don't think it's unusual that they elevated it to a top priority at the convention.”

Strategic Speakers

Harris pointed out that almost every keynote speaker during the DNC touched on criminal justice reform in their speeches. She compared that to the Republican National Convention, where none of the speakers discussed criminal justice reform efforts, even though Harris said the most successful reform efforts are predominantly led by Republican governors around the country.

That's why USJAN hosted a discussion forum of Republican governors to talk about the extensive strides they made at the state level, Harris said.

“We were concerned you wouldn’t hear as much at the RNC,” Harris said. “We were hopeful that we would create those issues even if you didn’t hear it from the main stage.”

Both parties' platforms include multi-faceted discussions of criminal justice reform, but focus on different methods for addressing those issues.

The GOP's platform focuses on diversion programs, substance abuse treatment, and over-criminalization—especially at the federal level (99 CrL 543, 7/20/16). The Democratic Party's platform encompasses many reform efforts that center on racial discrimination—including training for police officers, investing in job training and education for released prisoners, legalizing marijuana, and gun control regulation.

But only the main stage at the DNC was peppered with nods to criminal justice reform and the need for gun control regulation, Harris said. Even the location for the convention seemed a strategic choice, she added (99 CrL 111, 4/27/16).

“The DNC is smartly focusing on justice reforms that are popular in the backyard of the place where they’re putting on this show,” Harris explained. “Pennsylvania is an influential state in this process and could very well decide the presidential election—as could Ohio, as could Florida.”

Courting Republican Voters?

Goeas said he served as the program director for the Republican National Convention in 2008. While he said he doesn't know for sure exactly what strategies both parties used for their conventions, he said it's possible the Democrats are trying to appeal to Republican voters.

To support that point, Goeas pointed to his home state of Oklahoma's governor, Mary Fallin (R). When she gave her state of the state address, Goeas said the longest standing ovation she received was in response to criminal justice reform.

Reform policies at the state level are coming across as “common-sense” approaches to address modern-day criminal justice issues, Goeas explained.

Because Republican nominee Donald Trump hit hard on the “law and order gambit,” Goeas said convention organizers might have felt like no room was left for discussion of Republican-led criminal justice reform at the state level.

Goeas said Democratic National Convention organizers possibly took advantage of the GOP's decision not to address criminal justice reform at its convention by featuring it more prominently.

Speakers like Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) were likely reaching out to Republican voters, Goeas said.

“Certainly [criminal justice reform] is an issue that there is a lot of fairly good evidence out there that Republicans respond well to it,” he said.

A ‘Point of Unity.'

Yet Goeas pointed out that Democrats rolled up the issue of criminal justice reform with the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of public protest over several high-profile shootings of black civilians by white police officers. The move wasn't surprising, but Goeas said that is a separate issue from criminal justice reform.

However, Harris said the two topics are complementary.

“Criminal justice reform isn’t going to solve all our problems with policing and mistrust, but it is a badly needed point of unity,” Harris said. “It’s a place where we can reach out to create good will among different communities.”

Criminal justice reform only sees controversy at the federal level, Harris said. At the local and state level, more lawmakers are able to pass bipartisan reform because they constantly confront their constituents.

To that end, Harris called the Democratic National Convention “smartly choreographed.”

With assistance from Sara Merken

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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