In 1897, an infamous New York Journal article pronounced the death of Mark Twain.
Upon hearing the report, Twain, still alive and kicking, quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Such exaggerations still abound. More than a century later, some in the media are proclaiming the death of criminal justice reform efforts.
One New York Magazine article in 2016 declared that “criminal justice reform in Washington (though perhaps not in the states) is probably dead.”
But much to the contrary, bipartisan groups of lawmakers are still pushing for reform in Washington, proving such reports to be wrong. In addition, criminal justice reform efforts at the state level—especially in red states—continue to advance.
Consider the unlikely duo of Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. They are co-sponsoring the Renew Act of 2017, which would raise the age of eligibility from 21 to 25 for an individual charged for the first time with simple misdemeanor drug possession to get his record expunged after successfully completing a probationary period.
Criminal convictions for low-level, nonviolent offenses “often prevent young individuals from finding work, housing, and education, posing additional challenges as they work to transition back into society,” Gowdy said.
“By raising the expungement eligibility age from 21 to 25, the Renew Act promotes opportunities for young former offenders and reduces the risk of recidivism.”
Jeffries added, “It serves as a ripple of hope that will allow hardworking people to get back to work and provide for their families.”
This is not the only bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in Washington.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has introduced the far more sweeping REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act) with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has introduced companion legislation in the House.
And on June 13, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., introduced on behalf of a group of 14 Democratic and Republican representatives a bill to reauthorize the Second Chance Act.
This bill would continue to provide community-based groups with grant funding for a variety of programs aimed at reducing repeat criminal offenses. Those programs include job training, drug treatment, and education.
These active bipartisan coalitions refute the notion that criminal justice reform is six feet under in Washington.
Despite these developments, some New York reporters continue to ask whether bipartisan momentum on criminal justice reform is dead.
That’s a loaded question that overlooks recent successes in the states and the work of leaders in Congress like Gowdy, Jeffries, Sensenbrenner, as well as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who have all championed the need for commonsense criminal justice reform measures.
Many of those arguing that criminal justice reform is dead have laid the blame on Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But Lee has been hard at work courting the administration. He said, “I’ve had conversations with people in the White House and elsewhere in the administration in which I’ve explained to them” that criminal justice could provide “a really good bipartisan win.”
He said he’s “been working with the administration to figure out what we need to do in order to move forward.”
In 2013, as governor of Indiana, Mike Pence signed legislation to “reform and strengthen Indiana’s criminal code by focusing resources on the most serious offenses.” Last year on the campaign trail, Pence said, “We need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally.”
Pence, Lee, and other lawmakers will find abundant support for federal criminal justice reform measures in blue, purple, and red states.
For example, Pew Charitable Trusts reports that six states—Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia—have enacted legislation targeting reductions in juvenile criminal offenses.
While these states have in total “[c]losed five juvenile correctional facilities” and “reinvested nearly $50 million in a range of community-based services,” they also saw an average 10.3 percent decline in “juvenile arrests for serious crimes.”
This month, conservatives successfully pushed for the enactment of 10 criminal justice bills in Louisiana. These included policies designed to lower public safety costs by reducing the burdens placed on ex-offenders that hinder their ability to find employment after prison.
Ex-offenders often find their criminal histories are a bar to entering licensed professions such as being a barber, florist, or interior designer. In Louisiana, new legislation seeks to “[s]treamline the process for people with nonviolent felony convictions to obtain professional licenses.”
Stephen Waguespack, president of the conservative Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, told The Advocate, “There’s no reason why, if we have people leaving incarceration, we shouldn’t improve things on the re-entry side and help meet our workforce demand.”
Last year, Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of the criminal justice news organization The Marshall Project, wrote that Republicans “have a stronger hand to play than many of them think.”
He offered a bolder and much more beneficial question to latch on to: “Will 2017 be the year of criminal justice reform?”