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Voters in Hialeah, Florida, outside Miami cast their ballots on Nov. 6.

Voters Want Criminal Justice Reform. Are Politicians Listening?

Midterms show wide support across party lines for changing the system.

The results of the 2018 midterms are decidedly mixed. But while pollsters and pundits work to make sense of exactly what happened, one clear winner has emerged since Nov. 6: criminal justice reform.

Several state ballot measures reforming the criminal justice system passed with flying colors around the country. Floridians restored the right to vote to people with felony convictions; Louisiana abolished convictions based on non-unanimous juries; Washington state tightened up police accountability; and Colorado removed language in the state constitution allowing prison labor without pay.

In pre-election research we conducted in Florida, we found overwhelming support for the constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions (except for murder and sexual offenses) after they complete all terms of their sentences, including parole or probation. On election night, Amendment 4 won with nearly two-thirds of the vote: 64.5 percent to 35.5 percent, claiming majorities in every region of this swing state. In fact, the breadth of support for Amendment 4 was nearly unanimous, drawing majorities in over 90 percent of the state’s 67 counties.

The voters are ahead of politicians when it comes to criminal justice reform. Recent research we conducted for the Pretrial Justice Institute found that solid majorities of voters support major reform of the criminal justice system in the United States (57 percent), including nearly one-in-five voters (19 percent) who support a complete overhaul of the system. This sentiment crosses partisan lines, too, with majorities of Democrats (64 percent) and independents (58 percent) and nearly half of all Republicans (48 percent) backing the call for major reform of the criminal justice system.

Even as far back as 2013, when the public conversation over these matters was still evolving, fully 53 percent of all voters were aware that incarceration rates had increased in the last three decades, while just 8 percent believed they had gone down. And, by a two-to-one margin, voters believed that our country relies too much on incarcerating people (63 percent to 31 percent who disagreed), including majorities of every subgroup in the data who share this belief.

Voters also reject the “War on Drugs.” A solid majority of Americans supports marijuana legalization, and in the absence of federal action, states have been taking steps to legalize marijuana and decriminalize opioid use. In Michigan, voters just approved an initiative legalizing recreational use and possession of marijuana, while voters in states as red as Oklahoma, Missouri and Utah approved medicinal marijuana initiatives. This follows on successful legalization efforts in nine other states and medical marijuana laws in more than a dozen others.

There is so much more to do. While Amendment 4 is indeed a progressive victory, even this reform is modest in scope, excluding entire classes of citizens who have served their time from having their voting rights restored, except by the governor and cabinet on a case by case basis. We ought to be going much further.

Politicians ignore the pressing need for criminal justice reform at their own peril. If they aren’t motivated by a personal sense of morality, or at least by the desire to conserve government funds, then the public’s clear desire for reform ought to catalyze their action. Change is coming and politicians of both parties can help lead the way—on a path trail blazed by voters.

Celinda Lake is president of Lake Research Partners and one of the Democratic Party's leading political strategists. Daniel Gotoff is a Lake Research partner and heads its New York office.