The “soft on crime” critique of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has prompted obituaries for the era of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. While the coalition may be fragile, the prospects remain encouraging for continued progress on both public safety and justice, argues Marc Levin of the Council on Criminal Justice in The Hill. The primary responsibility for criminal justice policy rests at the state level, and the most significant reforms continue there. It was state-level reforms that first led to prison closures and reduced recidivism through treatment courts and other alternatives to incarceration, including in red states like Texas and Georgia. Those advances inspired the federal First Step Act signed by President Trump in 2018, which reduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and allowed low-risk inmates to shave time off their prison terms by completing rehabilitative programs.
Oklahoma, with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, a bipartisan measure that brings consistency and proportionality to sentencing for nonviolent offenses overwhelmingly passed the state’s Senate on March 23. Another red state, Ohio, is advancing significant bipartisan criminal justice reforms in its current legislative session. These include a “clean slate” proposal that would create a system to automatically expunge old, low-level criminal records. In recent weeks, more Republican senators have become cosponsors of a bill that would end the pronounced disparity in penalties between crack and powder cocaine, which would affect some 1,500 new sentences every year. The recent rise in some types of violent crime, most notably homicides, has strained bipartisan coalitions around sensible reforms. Fearmongering is unwarranted, Levin says.