The New Bipartisan Faces of Criminal Justice Reform

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You’d think that $68 billion would go a long way. According to the Justice Policy Institute, that is how much the United States spends on its criminal justice system every year – and we get what we pay for. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it claims 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. This staggering number is among the reasons that bipartisanship may make a comeback in U.S. politics. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have partnered up to cosponsor the REDEEM Act in an effort to tackle the confused American criminal justice system.

What Does Criminal Justice Reform Look Like?

Booker and Paul’s REDEEM Act – short for the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2014 – is meant to restructure sentencing and incarceration in the United States. The bill’s name alludes to the sealing and expungement of criminal records, which are often obstacles in finding employment for ex-convicts.

The bill would allow nonviolent, adult offenders to “to petition a court and make their case” for sealing their criminal records, and for the automatic sealing and expungement of certain juvenile records. The legislation would also introduce additional reforms to the juvenile justice system and the food stamps program.

Why is the U.S. criminal justice system in such disarray? University of Michigan Professor Salomon Orellana claims that our two-party system is partly to blame. In a guest article in the Washington Post, Orellana says that “when both parties (in a two-party system) emphasize toughness it sends a message to the public that toughness is the only legitimate response to crime.” The Republican-Democratic split favors quick-fixes, and their “tough on crime” attitude is the quick-fix America that has been failing with for the past few decades.

Orellana references New Zealand’s shift from a two-party system to one with multiple political parties. He notes that media discussion of tough policies in response to crime were less prominent in the new system. He says, “Under the multiparty system, minor parties received much more attention and consequently a wider variety of positions emerged.” In the case of New Zealand, the debate was changed for the better.

Bipartisanship is, in a way, America’s own third party. Its efforts are rarely popular on the national level but gets a lot of media attention when it happens. However, it’s possible that the REDEEM Act, and criminal justice reform in general, will provide a good opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together. The bill’s aisle-crossing authors make such partnerships seem promising, and not just because they are of opposite parties.

Booker and Paul are both extremely popular. Senator Booker gained state-wide celebrity status and makes an effort to work with members of the GOP when possible. Senator Paul has the name recognition of his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, and made noise himself with a unique Republican stance and a legendary filibuster. Both are revered by young people and boast enormous twitter fanbases. As rising stars within their party their actions have received a lot of attention lately, particularly when they attempt to reach across the aisle.

What Should Criminal Justice Reform Sound Like?

Despite its bipartisan co-sponsorship, the REDEEM Act has not broken the “tough on crime” barrier just yet. In an interview with Politico, Booker and Paul sat together to discuss their partnership. Booker remarked that, “it’s no longer this juxtaposition between tough on crime and public safety… You can be tough on crime and lower recidivism rates by doing common sense things.” While Booker’s statement is relatively bold, he still holds onto what should be antiquated rhetoric.

Perpetuating the same discussion that fostered American mass incarceration is a mistake. It would be healthier to foster a political discussion that rejects “tough on crime” as a legitimate response to issues that handcuff our criminal justice system. Because such rhetoric antagonizes those without opportunity, a complete attitudinal shift is necessary.

Professor Michelle Alexander details the history of “tough on crime” policies and the state of mass incarceration in her book The New Jim Crow. Alexander argues that since Nixon, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have employed hard-line crime policies to incarcerate and marginalize blacks in America. If Booker and Paul are serious about reform, and if they truly consider it a civil rights issue, they will abandon the tough stance that perpetuates many of the issues in our criminal justice system.

Nevertheless, punitive measures do not need to be phased out. Nor would they be. As Orellana writes about multiparty New Zealand, “there were still calls for punishment and enforcement, but there were also calls for alternative solutions.” Rather than promoting “tough on crime” policies working with public safety initiatives, the conversation should demand a balance between fair incarceration and effective rehabilitation.

While the REDEEM Act would be a step in the right direction, the legislation and the discussion surrounding it both fall short. But if we consider the hostility with which our Congress “operates”, the passage of this bill would be a milestone for its authors and the U.S. criminal justice system.

Latest updates on the REDEEM Act:

Jake Ephros (@JakeEphros)

Featured image courtesy of [Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia and JD Lasica via Flickr]

Jake Ephros
Jake Ephros is a native of Montclair, New Jersey where he volunteered for political campaigns from a young age. He studies Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at American University and looks forward to a career built around political activism, through journalism, organizing, or the government. Contact Jake at



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