I consider it a huge blessing to have grown up with parents who were on one side of the political spectrum and friends that were on the completely other side. I’m thankful for it, not because it made me adopt an exact midpoint of those different views, but because it challenged me to think critically about what I truly believe in. Having such different inputs at home and at school allowed me to become more confident in my own perspective and encouraged me to see the validity in the other side’s points. This balanced approach augments my passion for criminal justice reform because I see so many of the issues that encompass it as something that people from all different political positions could theoretically agree on. These issues are not rooted in values that everyone can agree on, but I believe that reforming them would support the separate values that each party is known for believing in.
Take mandatory minimums as an example. Mandatory minimums are a part of the legislation that came out of the War on Drugs era in the late 1900’s to reinforce the “Tough on Crime” perspective that the nation’s leaders wanted to emulate. These laws require judges to administer sentences of a particular time period to those convicted of certain federal/state crimes. This legislation thus directly contributed to the immense prison overcrowding issue that the nation faces today. Since these laws took discretion away from judges in stripping them of the ability to consider each person’s particular life circumstances when issuing sentences, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially over the last 30 years. Double and triple bunking, limited access to job opportunities and medical services, and other inhumane conditions have become a normal sight in our nation’s prisons, and most liberal-leaning people believe that a simple way to mitigate this growing issue is to abolish mandatory minimums. What isn’t emphasized quite enough is how much money this abolishment would save the D.O.J. and taxpayers who fund these prisons – something that conservatives could get behind. After the exponential increase of the federal prison population began, the Bureau of Prison’s appropriations increased from $330 million in FY1980 to $7.479 billion in FY2016 – an extremely unsustainable increase in spending (all my sources will be linked below!). Getting rid of mandatory minimums would mean there would be a lesser prison population to house, feed, and care for, appealing to conservative taxpayers. Moreover, those convicted of serious, society-endangering crimes would still be kept imprisoned, meaning that there would be little change in terms of public safety. With this balance of interests in mind, it boggles my mind that abolishing mandatory minimums is not something that is agreed on by all people across the political spectrum. Perhaps it is because the argument is usually framed through a more liberal-leaning lens, or perhaps people are irrationally rooted in their tough-on-crime beliefs, but I truly believe that if advocates framed the reform morally AND fiscally, more Americans could get on board.
The same thing could be said about the death penalty. It is often incorrectly assumed that a life in prison sentence is more expensive to carry out than a death sentence, but multiple studies have shown this is untrue (linked below). The additional trials required for a death penalty case, and the expenses that come with housing people on a separate death row add up, making death sentences significantly more expensive for the Department of Justice to carry out. Consequently, shouldn’t the less expensive option be more appealing to the people who believe that investing any money into these unproductive members of society? Moreover, if you support the death penalty for retribution reasons and believe that these people should suffer as much as possible for what they did, isn’t forcing them to wake up day in and day out in a crappy facility, away from their loved ones and unable to chase any of their dreams, a greater form of retribution? It’s not technically an eye for an eye, but in a twisted way, it’s almost better. No part of me resonates with these views, but trying to understand this line of thinking convinces me that even the most conservative advocates of the death penalty could be encouraged to at least rethink their views if they want to truly align with their fiscally hands-off and morally retributive values.
This paradigm shift feels idealistic to advocate for in such a divided society. I don’t necessarily know that too many right-leaning people would be convinced to be the outspoken advocates marching on Capitol Hill to fight for death penalty abolition, but I do think that it can at least start a meaningful conversation about what criminal justice reform can look like. It can be progressive without necessarily be liberal. It can tackle the unquestionably racist elements of the system without making the reform 100% centered on race. It can work to keep society safe and deter people from engaging in criminal activity without continuing to make inmates suffer for no reason. This isn’t to say that some core beliefs about the justice system won’t vary between people of different parties. I know that I won’t be able to convince too many fiscally conservative people that more money needs to be funneled into social services to prevent people from turning to crime in the first place. Nonetheless, there are ways that many other reforms can be honestly framed to appeal to both sides, and if we focus on that, I genuinely believe powerful reform can be achieved.