Cable news pundits and clips from protests paint a picture of a nation divided over the proper role of the criminal justice system. There is no doubt that incidents of police violence, including the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minnesota officer and the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, continue to elevate the volume and intensity of this debate. However, a new poll by the Justice Action Network and #Cut50 shows this intensity doesn’t mean disagreement. According to the poll, a supermajority of Americans want to see wide-ranging reforms to the criminal justice system.
Voters across the demographic and political spectrum are united in their support for limits on unnecessary police force, more transparency in law enforcement, and more alternatives to arrest. Voters also support criminal justice reforms aimed at keeping people safe from the COVID-19 virus and rollbacks to qualified immunity. As the 2020 national campaign heats up, criminal justice reform — including policing reforms — stands out one of the few remaining bipartisan issues.
The poll, which was conducted under the joint direction of Beacon Research, a Democratic firm, Shaw & Company, a Republican firm, identified 11 specific criminal justice policies that had particularly strong bipartisan support, being backed by at least 80 percent of Democrats, two-thirds of Independents, and two-thirds of Republicans.
“These are extraordinarily strong numbers, particularly given the level of political polarization in the country,” said James Williams, Arnold Ventures Vice President of Criminal Justice Advocacy. “The only comparable things that come to mind are like ice cream and puppies.”
The poll found that this support is not only widespread, but also deep-rooted. Voters who expressed strong support for these proposals outweigh the combined weak and strong opposition by 30 points. This political intensity is driving voters’ decisions in the 2020 election. Nearly two-thirds of all voters, including a majority of Democrats, Independents and Republicans, were more likely to vote for candidates who support reforms. And 60 percent of all voters, again including a bipartisan majority, were less likely to vote for candidates who block reforms.
This level of support for criminal justice reform is a new dynamic in U.S. elections.
“Voters are actually considering these issues when they’re casting their ballots,” said Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network. “Before when we would ask the question, ‘Are you more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supports criminal justice reform,’ we wouldn’t get a majority. Now we’re seeing this is an issue that people are voting on.”
These reforms also had strong support from key voter demographics, especially the college-educated and suburban women who have recently helped to flip longtime Republican districts over to Democrats.
“If you’re a candidate — Republican, Democrat, or anything in between — who’s looking for a narrative that appeals to the constituency that’s turning elections right now, and that’s women, criminal justice is a great place to start,” said Harris.
Which Policies Specifically?
While polling shows impressive support for certain policies, not all criminal justice reform is made the same.
Some of the policies that polled best apply to limited circumstances or are already in place in many jurisdictions, such as mandatory body-worn cameras for civilian interactions, banning no-knock search warrants, and banning chokeholds when lethal force isn’t required. However, larger structural reforms also garnered support from overwhelming majorities. Mandatory investigations by the Department of Justice into use of lethal force by law enforcement was favored by 88 percent of voters. A national database on officer misconduct received 82 percent support. And automatic record sealing after five years for low-level offenses was at 77 percent.
“These are really high numbers of support,” said Jeremy Travis, Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice. “So if you’re in the House or the Senate and you’re thinking about supporting the Justice in Policing Act, there’s your answer right there.”
Polling also showed that these top reforms had support from policing professionals. More than 70 percent of voters in households with someone who worked in law enforcement supported each of the 11 policies. And in California, several of the largest police unions have publicly called for the passage of a national use-of-force standard — an idea the poll found to have support from 85 percent of voters.
“You can obviously support law enforcement and also support reforms that make law enforcement and the communities they serve safer,” said Harris. “You can be both of these things at once — a supporter of law enforcement and a supporter of policing reform.”
Beyond these core policies, the polling found extensive support for limiting a controversial legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. Under qualified immunity, law enforcement officers aren’t liable for violating the federal civil rights of an individual unless the deprivation was a “clearly established” right. As a result, many obviously harmed civilians never get relief from the courts unless they can point to a prior decided case in that jurisdiction with nearly the exact same facts. While this doctrine was originally created by the Supreme Court in order to protect police from frivolous lawsuits, it has been expanded to cover officers who engage in violent or deadly actions.
Contrary to the current status of qualified immunity, more than 80 percent of voters said people and their families should be able to hold police officers responsible in civil court if the officer violates their Constitutional rights.
“I think Americans are consistently opposed to excessive force and believe that the police should be held responsible if they violate people’s constitutional rights,” said Walter Katz, Arnold Ventures Vice President of Criminal Justice. “That goes straight to the qualified immunity question.”
Senate Democrats largely favor overturning qualified immunity, and Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) filed his own bill reforming the doctrine, which earned the endorsement of several prominent conservative organizations. Meanwhile, the House passed the Justice in Policing Act, which includes a repeal of qualified immunity. And while Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the lead Republican author of the GOP’s Senate police reform bill, deemed reform of qualified immunity to be off-the-table, this polling shows that the idea has broad support.
“Now we can see that the reform that was considered a poison pill by a lot of lawmakers is one of the most popular,” said Harris.
What About Defund the Police?
In addition to support for specific reforms within departments, polling found that voters also backed non-police responses to incidents involving people in crisis. These alternatives to arrest often involve dispatching social workers or mental health professionals to intervene and divert people away from the criminal justice system. More than 70 percent of voters wanted professionals other than police responding to calls about people experiencing homelessness. Non-police responding to people with mental health problems received 66 percent support. And other professionals responding to incidents involving drug abuse or addiction received 59 percent support.
Overall, 87 percent of voters backed co-responder models, including majorities of Democrats and Republicans, in which law enforcement teams up with mental health professionals, social workers, or other first-responders when responding to calls about people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, or drug use. The popularity of these programs presents an opportunity to rethink major components of how policing functions in the United States.
“Keeping us focused on the moment and critically examining how we want to see policing represent our democratic values is an opportunity that we should not let slip by,” said Katz.
However, support for these policies doesn’t necessarily mean a popular endorsement of the “defund the police” movement. The JAN poll found that a vast majority of voters still wanted police to respond to cases involving theft or property damage. And a recent Gallup poll found that most Americans — Black, white and Hispanic — wanted police presence in their neighborhoods to remain the same.
This shows that voters have a nuanced perspective on the changes they support within the criminal justice system — one that recognizes police aren’t always the best option for responding to an incident.
“It’s important to critically study the footprint of policing and whether social or community-led interventions lead to better outcomes, and then let communities have a role in determining what is an appropriate role for policing,” said Katz.
State vs. Federal Action
Support for criminal justice reform and policing reform are already making the leap from polling to political change. Hundreds of bills are being discussed and voted on in state Legislatures across the country. For example, Oregon recently passed a package of police reform bills, including a ban on chokeholds, a committee dedicated to use of force and police accountability, and tearing down regulatory barriers to disciplining officers for misconduct. In California, legislators are debating bills about disclosing misconduct and regulating police actions. And in Virginia, the state Legislature is in special session specifically to debate and pass criminal justice reform bills.
Meanwhile, this groundswell of support for reform has already had an impact at the ballot box. In places as varied as Oakland County, Mich., Pima County, Ariz., St. Louis, Mo., and Wyandotte County, Kan., pro-reform candidates for district attorney defeated primary opponents who either stood in the way of change or wanted to roll back reforms.
Despite reforms at the state and local level, the federal government has been slow to implement its own policies. While the House has passed the Justice in Policing Act, the Senate has failed to vote on that version or pass its own bill, known as the Justice Act. However, there is an opportunity to move forward on federal criminal justice policies in a COVID-19 recovery bill.
Justice and COVID-19
Like other criminal justice policies, JAN’s polling has found support across the board for reforms related to the ongoing pandemic. Two-thirds of voters back plans to move people convicted of nonviolent offenses out of prison and into alternative programs in order to reduce prison populations and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Moving prisoners over age 60 who pose no threat to public safety into home detention received 69 percent support — including 59 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats.
Furthermore, 61 percent of voters also support allowing people previously involved in the criminal justice system to access Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans or other federal stimulus money — with majority support from Democrats and Republicans.
The Paycheck Protection Program Second Chance Act, which was introduced by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), James Lankford (R-OK), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), would implement that reform to the PPP.
Overall, the threat of COVID-19 has worked to underscore the harms inflicted on people by the criminal justice system and highlight the changes necessary to promote a more holistic view of public safety instead of mere incarceration.
“Prisons in most states are among the top three hotspots for COVID outbreaks,” Travis said. “Governors, judges, prosecutors and others have worked together to figure out how to get people out of harm’s way.”
Even as the federal government has been slow to act, states like New Jersey and California have taken robust steps to shrink their incarcerated populations and others are still moving forward.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Travis. “Criminal justice stakeholders, prosecutors, judges — not just defense lawyers — have taken the extraordinary steps to release people from prison and jail, and realized the sky didn’t fall. Now we need to do more.”