Criminal Justice

Here Are 5 Criminal Justice Reform Measures That Americans Say They Support

A new poll says voters want change. They can get it if they truly want it.


Sebnem Ragiboglu /

A new poll shows that Americans really do want to make the criminal justice system much less harsh in several ways. But what does that actually look like?

The survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Justice Action Network, asked 800 registered voters their opinions about mandatory minimum sentences, bail reform, criminal background checks, and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent criminals. The good news is that Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support reforms to make justice system less harsh to make it easier for those released from jail to return to a normal life. The poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe that the goal of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation, not punishment.

The Justice Action Network, a group devoted to creating transpartisan coalitions for criminal justice reforms, didn't craft these questions randomly. Many of the queries were directly connected to specific legislative pushes:

1. Mandatory Minimums

A full 87 percent of those polled support replacing mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent cases with sentencing ranges, so judges can make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Mandatory minimums are among the most corrosive consequences of the drug war, sending nonviolent offenders to prison for decades. Much of the mercy President Barack Obama and his Department of Justice offered when commuting federal sentences during his second term was directed toward those who had been stuck in prison for mandatory minimum drug sentences.

Yet even as Americans are increasingly aware that mandatory minimums have been putting away their neighbors, not scary violent drug lords, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for harsher prosecutions and states are adding new drugs to mandatory-minimum lists to satisfy demands that they do something about opioids.

If Americans really do object to mandatory minimums, they should take a look at the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The law bill would reduce the scope of mandatory minimum sentence demands for nonviolent federal drug offenders and would give judges more leeway. The bill has struggled under resistance from drug warriors and law enforcement groups.

2. Cash Bail Reform

Should people who get arrested have to front money to be released if they aren't a threat? According to the poll, 85 percent want to replace cash bail with supervised releases, especially in cases where the defendant does not pose a threat to society.

Cash bail reform will likely be a major issue this year and beyond. Last year New Jersey all but eliminated cash bail entirely and switched to a system of pre-trial assessments and supervised releases. This month Alaska joined them. There are pushes in cities and states across the country to change the pre-trial system so that nonviolent people aren't detained simply because they cannot afford bail. Yesterday a California judge ruled that it's unconstitutional for the state to set bail so high that defendants cannot pay, unless they're dangerous.

On the federal level, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have teamed up to try to create a fund to help states research replacements for cash bail. The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act would set aside $10 million in grants to assist in implementing new systems of pre-trial assessments.

3. Suspending Driver's Licenses

Another set of reforms would curtail states' tendency to suspend driver's licenses as a form of punishment. This can make it harder for people, particularly poor people, to make ends meet legally—an absurd approach to fighting crime. States often suspend driver's licenses for drug-related crimes even when the arrest had nothing to do with driving while impaired. That's not entirely the states' own choice: Federal law mandates that they do so or lose some of their Department of Transportation funding.

In the Justice Action Network poll, 73 percent say that states should be able to decide whether to suspend licenses without having to risk federal funding. A bill introduced last year by Reps. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.) would do exactly that. The Better Drive Act may be one of the shortest bills ever written. It simply repeals the part of the federal code that requires states to suspend licenses for drug convictions or lose transportation funding. That's it.

4. Expunging Records for Young Adults' Low-Level Crimes

In the poll, 79 percent think people under the age of 25 should have an opportunity after completing probation to expunge a first-time, low-level conviction for a nonviolent crime.

Thanks to a law passed in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan, adults under the age of 21 already have this option. The Renew Act, sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D–N.Y.) and Trey Gowdy (R–S.C.) would increase the eligibility age for expungement to 25.

5. Government Jobs and Criminal Background Checks

The poll has 65 percent agreeing that people who apply for public sector jobs should get the chance to explain their qualifications and skills before having their criminal history examined.

This is a component of the "Ban the Box" movement, which aims to either convince or require employers to wait until later in the hiring process to consider whether a job candidate's criminal background should disqualify him or her from consideration. The idea here is that employers often remove ex-cons from the hiring pool as soon as they know of their past without even evaluating whether the crimes should disqualify them.

This question focused on public sector jobs. There are House and Senate versions of legislation that would require the federal agencies and federal contractors wait until they've extended a potential employment offer to a person before submitting them to a criminal background check. There are a bunch of exceptions, of course, for those who apply for jobs in law enforcement, national security, or positions that involve access to sensitive or classified information.

The House version of the bill is sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). The Senate version is sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.).

Note that every single criminal justice reform bill mentioned here has bipartisan sponsors. If people support reform as much as this poll suggests, there are lawmakers on each side of the aisle who agree.

Read the rest of the poll results here.

NEXT: Correction: Story on 'Worst States To Live In' Was Based on Old Data

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This is a component of the “Ban the Box” movement, which aims to either convince or require employers to wait until later in the hiring process to consider whether a job candidate’s criminal background should disqualify him or her from consideration. The idea here is that employers often remove ex-cons from the hiring pool as soon as they know of their past without even evaluating whether the crimes should disqualify them

    I am, of course, completely happy if employers are convinced to ignore it willingly. Probably the real deal is to just make less things criminal.

    1. “Probably the real deal is to just make less things criminal”
      Too obvious apparently.

    2. Agreed. This measure is a bit like spraying air freshener on a pile of garbage. It would probably indirectly re-legitimize the awful, overly broad, ineffective criminal law that exists now.

  2. Here’s the California bail case:…..152056.PDF

    A decent summary, from the beginning of the opinion:

    As we will explain, although the prosecutor presented no evidence that non-monetary conditions of release could not sufficiently protect victim or public safety, and the trial court found petitioner suitable for release on bail, the court’s order, by setting bail in an amount it was impossible for petitioner to pay, effectively constituted a sub rosa detention order lacking the due process protections constitutionally required to attend such an order. Petitioner is
    entitled to a new bail hearing at which the court inquires into and determines his ability to pay, considers nonmonetary alternatives to money bail, and, if it determines petitioner is unable to afford the amount of bail the court finds necessary, follows the procedures and makes the findings necessary for a valid order of detention.”

    1. Meanwhile, the couple that was recently busted for torturing and imprisoning their own 13 kids, but apparently posed no threat to anyone but those children, who have been taken from them, were given bail amounts that they could never pay.
      And people were just tickled pink with the $1,000,000 per child amount set.
      Hypothetical situations and push-polls don’t counter the public’s desire for punishment when the crime assaults their sensibilities. The only way law-makers justify doing, in those instances, what the public wants, is to make it the law that all those accused of the same crime get treated in the same way – thus severe punishment becomes the norm.
      Look at what is happening to the judge, who followed the recommendation of the probation department and gave a light sentence to the young man, who was prosecuted for raping a drunk woman. The recommendation was for lenience, because of the youth of the defendant and his clean background. The citizens are trying to have the judge recalled.

    2. For every stupid argument these criminal-lovers make, I can show you instances where the people rose up in indignation because the criminal was treated too leniently and the law-makers reacted to make punishment more severe.
      The most egregious of these arguments are the ones that decry the disparity between “crack” and powdered cocaine convictions, when the difference is the direct result of the very community, that these do-gooders claim is most impacted, going to law-makers and complaining of the impact “crack” cocaine is having on their communities and wanting more sever punishment handed out.
      This criminal justice reform crap is just another way the SJWs are trying to destroy America.

  3. I’m supposed to consider the opinions of the average voter when millions of the little nematodes were of the opinion that Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person in the country to be President and millions more thought that position belonged to Donald Trump? Yeah, don’t think so. If you voted for either one of those cunts, you don’t get to have opinions no more.

  4. How about:

    6. Make it easier to sue overzealous prosecutors for malicious prosecution, and judges for the results of misconduct, and,

    7. Get serious about the right to a SPEEDY trial. Currently the actual meaning of this is a joke. The law requires a trial within a certain amount of time, but, if the time runs out, the government can re-file the charges. So there is no REAL right to a speedy trial.

  5. Prosecute police for perjury when applicable.

  6. ” Much of the mercy President Barack Obama and his Department of Justice offered when commuting federal sentences during his second term was directed toward those who had been stuck in prison for mandatory minimum drug sentences.”
    So for seven years this admitted illegal drug user had no problem putting these same people into federal prisons and sending his gestapo out to prosecute legal medical marijuana growers and users but he’s somehow merciful because he commuted the sentences of a tiny fraction of his victims? Oh that’s right, he was too busy ramming Obamacare down our collective throats, droning weddings and executing American citizens without trial. I like you Scott but seriously Fuck Off with this shit. Your attempts to rehabilitate BHO and his justice department are pathetic. Perhaps you’ll find some insight here:

    1. This is a hilariously bonkers response to a single sentence.

      1. Yeah it’s weird how some people actually care about facts and reality rather than seeing how far they can go down on Obama’s cock without choking isn’t it?

        1. No, this is all very useful in explaining why all of these bills are just languishing despite being addressing popular subjects. Somebody just needs to name a criminal justice reform bill in a way that its acronym spells out “FUCK OBAMA” and maybe it’ll get some attention.

  7. I just started 7 weeks ago and I’ve gotten 2 check for a total of $2,000…this is the best decision I made in a long time! “Thank you for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to make extra money from home. go to this site for more details


  8. What a bunch of drivel from you mamby-pamby, no-load bolshevik skunks. Coddling these degenerates has gotten us exactly nowhere. I’ll tell you what: go down to the nearest stream and ask your local salmon how many times the grizzly bear has given them a ‘second chance.’ Since animals can’t even conceive of ‘second chances,’ they’ll undoubtedly tell you ‘none.’ If it’s good enough for a grizzly, by God, it’s good enough for me!

    1. 7/10 Would Be Trolled By Again

  9. A year or two after this passes crime rates will be back to where they were in the 70’s and the plight of the poor persecuted crackhead will have faded from memory. The backlash is going to be worse.

  10. I agree with 1, 2, 4, 5. 3 I’m not so sure about.

    However. I’m curious how civil forfeiture didn’t get into this list? Was it that people tend to support it or that it was an oversight?

    I think CF needs a lot of reform, and certainly judicial oversight where getting your stuff back can be done with a nominal filing fee with the government having the burden of proof. This thing is absurd.

    Also, how about situations like in MN where if you are in debt collections, you can be arrested with bail set for the amount you owe?…

    1. Civil forfeiture wasn’t on the poll. I know from other polls that when people have civil asset forfeiture explained to them, they really, really don’t like it. But there’s a massive awareness issue. Most people simply haven’t heard of it.

  11. I can see what your saying… Raymond `s article is surprising, last week I bought a top of the range Acura from making $4608 this-past/month and-a little over, $10,000 this past month . with-out any question its the easiest work I’ve ever had . I began this five months/ago and almost straight away startad bringin in minimum $82 per-hr

    HERE? ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  12. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.


  13. It’s becoming less and less sensible to cite “public opinion”, because public opinion is very often wrong. It took the public decades upon decades to conclude that it is better to let grown adults consume marijuana in their own home instead of incarcerating them.

    The public generally doesn’t care about a law’s effectiveness or civil liberties. The public cares when its emotionally satisfying.

    Which is why we have a Constitutional republic that recognizes the problems with majoritarian appeals, and addresses them by restraining the majority and diffusing government power.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.