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'National Politics on Crime Are Changing,' Vera Leaders Say

Democrats bucked historic trends at the polls this week on issues of crime and safety. Voters overwhelmingly saw through the fearmongering and rhetoric about crime that dominated election ads and debates in 2022, write Insha Rahman and Nick Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice. Despite a staggering amount of money spent on crime ads in the final weeks of the campaign, many Democratic candidates were able to overcome and even counter Republican attacks portraying them as “soft on crime.” Crime/safety is one of the few kitchen table issues that spans partisan divides. Everyone wants to be safe. For too many decades, knee-jerk assumptions about voter preferences on criminal justice resulted in “tough-on-crime” policies that drove mass incarceration yet failed to make communities safer, say Rahman and Turner. Several close races for governor, attorney general, and even Congress, hinged on crime debates. Reform prosecutors, drug policy ballot initiatives, and other justice reform measures prevailed in many, but not all, states.


While voters overall rejected crime scare tactics, Democrats in places that have passed high-profile reforms were taken to task if they failed to convince voters of the evidence that these policy changes are consistent with public safety. Vera Action commissioned Hart Research Associates to conduct a national exit survey this week. Among the takeaways: National politics on crime are changing. Voters saw through the fearmongering and dog whistles, signaling they want solutions, not scare tactics. Issues of crime and safety are a significant concern for the Democratic base, but those concerns do not equal support for punitive criminal justice policies and more of the status quo. Crime and safety are felt most locally. Even in typically blue areas that have made progress on justice reform, voters expect honest conversations about safety and solutions. Many Democratic candidates addressed crime and safety on the campaign trail only when attacked. They adopted “tough-on-crime” language to counter GOP accusations of support for “defunding the police” or being “soft on crime,” or they deployed counterattacks on their challengers, such as targeting their support or lack of condemnation for the January 6th Capitol riots. Of Pennsylvania voters who said crime was the most important issue to their vote (11 percent), 51 percent voted for John Fetterman over 49 percent for Mehmet Oz. Public support for justice reform persists, including in typically red parts of the U.S., Rahman and Turner say.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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