WSW: A Changing Political Climate and Criminal Justice Reform

Sep 14, 2015

Michigan State Prison at Jackson - file photo
Credit Andrew Jameson, Wikimedia Commons

“These organizations rarely agree on anything, but they agree that we need criminal justice reform now.” 

Holly Harris is Executive Director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. It is made up of different groups from across the ideological spectrum. That includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and Americans for Tax Reform. In Michigan the free market think tank the Mackinac Center has joined the effort. Harris says the goal is to safely reduce the prison population and the costs that go along with it. She says they also want to reduce barriers for ex-offenders to find work after they are released.

The Justice Action Network has picked a few states to focus on, including Michigan. Harris says about one in five state dollars are spent on corrections. But she says there are reform minded leaders. Harris says Governor Snyder has advocated reform to reduce spending on the criminal justice system. Attorney General Bill Schuette has opposed proposed reforms and has been criticized by fellow Republicans. But Harris says her organization has had good discussions with Schuette on reform proposals, and says he has approached reform in “a thoughtful way.” 

A state Senate committee has approved one of the reform proposals supported by the Justice Action Network. It would change the rules on “civil asset forfeiture.” Currently law enforcement can seize property from someone even if they haven’t been charged with a crime. Harris says the package of legislation raises the burden for taking property, and exempts some property from forfeiture.

Harris says the political discussion around crime has changed. She says the public sees “tough on crime” talk as “empty rhetoric.” Harris says there is plenty of data available now about the most cost efficient ways to reduce crime. The GOP political strategist says conservative groups approach the issue from different perspectives. Harris says Americans for Tax Freedom wants to reduce the costs of mass incarceration. She says Freedom Works looks at the issue from a Constitutional perspective, while the Faith and Freedom Coalition wants redemption for ex-offenders.

Asked about the prospects for reform, Harris says right now there is a “perfect storm” for meaningful change. She says there is bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform that should make it happen.