Partisans and pundits like to present criminal justice reform as an issue that pits red states against blue states. But beyond the headlines, policymakers from both sides of the aisle are working to build a criminal justice system that is more effective, efficient, accountable, and just. Even following the spike in crime during the Covid-19 pandemic, bipartisan commitment to criminal justice reform has remained remarkably robust — including leadership from conservative coalitions.
“Researchers, policy experts, politicians, and criminal justice system actors all struggle to find the right solutions that minimize harm, hold people accountable, and ensure public safety,” says , Arnold Ventures’ advocacy manager of criminal justice. “What’s encouraging now is that many conservative leaders are leaning into the power of collaboration, recognizing that if we work together, we can pass and implement solutions that account for the breadth of stakeholder needs.”
Moreover, many of these policies are moving and having an impact at the municipal, state, and federal levels.
“We‘ve seen conservative legislators and executive leadership in red and purple states lead the way on key criminal justice reform issues,” says Carter. “Even in blue states, we have seen bills pass unanimously with conservative support, which really demonstrates the growing conservative commitment to improving the criminal justice system.”
Linking Justice Reform with Conservative Priorities
In North Carolina, Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) has gained traction since its founding in 2016 and has advanced several pieces of reform legislation. Their first goal was raising the juvenile age so that a 16- or 17-year-old charged with a low-level felony or misdemeanor would not enter the adult court system. This was legislation that state Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Republican, had been pushing for nearly a decade.
“With policing reform specifically and then criminal justice broadly, we have enough evidence and data to really show what works and what doesn’t,” says Tarrah Callahan, CCJR’s founder and executive director. “CCJR exists to bring messaging to conservatives to show how consistent all of these policies are with conservative priorities.”
Other wins included the General Assembly and Senate’s unanimous passage of the Second Chance Act in 2019, which allowed the expungement of nonviolent charges, and Senate Bill 300 in 2021, which was sponsored by three Republican state senators. That bill standardized police officer training and created a database to track uses of force resulting in death or serious injury.
“I was heartened by the amount of support from law enforcement agencies, including the Police Benevolent Association, the Sheriff’s Association, and the Police Chief’s Association,” says Callahan. “It’s an accomplishment to bring all of those groups to the table, and one that should be credited to the commitment of Senate leadership to support meaningful solutions in this space.”
Currently, CCJR is prioritizing legislation to stop court fines and fees from impacting driver’s license suspension, and to regulate public access to mugshots (and thus keep them from being available on internet search engines in perpetuity).
‘A Fiscal and a Resource Allocation Standpoint’
Another organization aiming to reach both sides of the aisle is R Street Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. Recently, the organization has worked on initiatives concerning the cost-saving success of police-led juvenile diversion programs and cite-and-release programs as an alternative to arrest. Fewer people in those systems means less public money spent and frees officers up to solve violent crimes, says Jillian Snider, the policy director of R Street’s criminal justice and civil liberties team and a retired New York City police officer.
“We look at it from a fiscal and a resource allocation standpoint,” Snider says. “And we hope to use this as a tool to re-establish some of that trust that’s been lacking between police and the community.”
At the federal level, several policing reform bills passed the House of Representatives in September 2022. They include the bipartisan Invest to Protect Act, which was co-sponsored by Republicans including U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ted Cruz. The Act would award grants to smaller local governments to fund evidence-based safety training for vulnerable communities, such as sexual assault or domestic violence survivors, and those experiencing homelessness.
Then there was the VICTIM Act, which would have created a grant program in the Department of Justice to help law enforcement agencies improve their clearance rates for homicides. In recent years, these rates — which reflect the percent of homicides that police departments solve — have fallen, and this has had a disproportionate effect on victims in communities of color.
These dedicated additional resources are going to enhance law enforcement agencies’ ability to successfully investigate violent criminal acts.Caitlyn Morrison advocacy chief of staff at Arnold Ventures
“These dedicated additional resources are going to enhance law enforcement agencies’ ability to successfully investigate violent criminal acts,” Caitlyn Morrison, advocacy chief of staff at Arnold Ventures, explains. “Therefore, it’ll help bring justice to victims and their families, and overall keep communities safer.”
Drug Policies Overdue for Reform
Over the last decade, policy change around marijuana has progressed rapidly. In November 2022, Maryland and Missouri voters approved ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana, meaning that it is now legal in just under half of all states (and decriminalized in a majority of states). Additionally, some of the remaining states are poised to reexamine their cannabis laws this year, including Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Texas, and Oklahoma.
Last October, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt — a Republican who has become a national leader in red state criminal justice reform — ordered a special election for State Question 820, which would have legalized recreational marijuana use. While the referendum ultimately failed, it garnered significant Republican support in the relatively conservative state. It also included some of the most comprehensive marijuana criminal justice reforms seen in any legalization effort to date and will serve as a benchmark for future efforts around the country.
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, has set their sights on another drug policy long overdue for reform: sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. For over 35 years, the sentencing imbalance between these two types of cocaine has disproportionately and undeniably impacted Black communities. In 2022, the bipartisan Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act narrowly failed in the Senate after passing the House, and in February 2023 it was reintroduced by a bipartisan group including U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul.
“Our support for that bill, in addition to our support previously for the First Step Act under the Trump Administration, is due to the fact that if you look at all of the research around the disparity, you see that it has not reduced recidivism, improved public safety, or reduced drug use,” says Jeremiah Mosteller, the deputy policy director at Americans for Prosperity. “It is a clear example of a failed approach in the criminal justice system.”
Americans for Prosperity is also supporting the States Reform Act, sweeping legislation to end the federal prohibition on cannabis and defer to state regulation. First introduced in 2021 by U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, “it restores the power to states,” Mosteller notes, “but the most important part is that it will provide comprehensive expungement, which pretty much does not exist on the federal level in any form right now.”
Clean Slate and Dignity
In the last five years, 10 states have passed clean slate legislation — policies that expand eligibility for the clearance or sealing of arrest and conviction records, as well as automate that process — for people who have remained crime-free. Another half dozen states are expected to consider bills around the topic in the coming year or so. Advocates say the popularity of these efforts is due to a principle all sides can agree on: Bureaucratic barriers should be removed so that more people can get back to work and support themselves.
Clean Slate efforts have gained strong bipartisan support because they are deeply rooted in the American Dream — the belief that if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead and provide for your family.Sheena Meade CEO of Clean Slate Initiative
“Clean Slate efforts have gained strong bipartisan support because they are deeply rooted in the American Dream — the belief that if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead and provide for your family,” says Sheena Meade, CEO of Clean Slate Initiative. “Also, people are starting to understand that those who benefit from a second chance are normal folks. One in three Americans have an arrest or conviction record, and most records are not for serious offenses.”
These clean slate policies can have massive impact. For instance, since the implementation of Pennsylvania’s clean slate law in 2019, over 40 million cases have been sealed, benefiting 1.2 million Pennsylvanians.
Moreover, with the rapid digitalization of public records, automatic record sealing is becoming more and more possible. However, there is a long way to go.
“Because states have different computer systems and record-keeping practices, it can take time to get everything prepared and map out how this policy will work best in specific states,” says Meade. “Whether it’s this year or soon after, community partners in many states are on track to find solutions that will help working people.”
American businesses have also thrown their weight behind clean-slate policies, with some of the nation’s largest companies joining the Second Chance Business Coalition (SCBC). The group, which includes companies like Walmart, General Motors, and McDonald’s, supports the goal of hiring employees with prior convictions by providing tools, best practices, and expertise to member companies and facilitating internal initiatives. In April, for Clean Slate Month, SCBC and other partners will host a conference at Columbia University’s business school to educate current and future business leaders about the benefits of second chance employment.
The Nolan Center for Justice, established by the American Conservative Union Foundation, is also a prominent voice for clean-slate policies. “We tailor our approach depending on who we speak to,” explains Kaitlin Owens, Nolan’s deputy director of advocacy. “For instance, reaching out to business leaders who can testify on the positives of hiring formerly incarcerated folks can go a long way.”
Tough on Crime as ‘a Thing of the Past’
In addition to its support for people who have recently been released from incarceration, the Nolan Center also works to effectuate change within prisons. For instance, model policy written by Nolan in 2017 around improving the treatment of incarcerated women was distributed to state legislatures via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative nonprofit organization, resulting in 32 states — many of them southern Republican strongholds — passing such legislation. One example is North Carolina, which in 2021 passed the Dignity Act limiting the use of restraints and cavity searches on pregnant women, providing access to menstrual products, and ensuring mothers are placed in facilities within a reasonable distance to their children.
number of states that have passed legislation around improving the treatment of incarcerated women
“The tough on crime, ‘lock them up, throw away the key’ mindsets of the 1980s and ‘90s are a thing of the past,” Owens says. “In the last 10 years, I think we’ve seen a shift in what is ‘Republican,’ what is ‘conservative,’ and what can we do together to bridge that gap with Democrats.”
For Carter at AV, this desire to work together and focus on results is encouraging.
“As an organization based on the values of bipartisanship and evidence-based policy, it’s exciting to see conservative policymakers and organizations continue to step up and work across the aisle to solve these pressing issues that our country and our communities face,” she said.