Last week, the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) polled several hundred conservative voters to assess whether they recognize criminal justice as an important issue currently facing the nation. While specific reasons for their interest are debatable, 81 percent of Trump voters polled described the issue as either “very important” or “somewhat important”– a definite consensus.
Ordinarily, polls that confirm the status quo are not interesting. This poll, however, caught the attention of those who have been asking whether conservative attitudes towards criminal-justice policy may have changed since the November 2016 election.
It’s a fair question.
The new presidential administration has given mixed messages, sometimes using strong rhetoric about increasing criminal penalties, but other times speaking with thoughtfulness about expanding treatment for opioid addiction. Some prominent administration figures, such as Vice President Mike Pence, have a history as reformers. Others, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have a history as skeptics. The views of the president himself are unpredictable.
Furthermore, when asked if judges should have more freedom to assign punishments other than prison (such as civil or community service), 63 percent of Trump voters “strongly agreed” or “agreed.”
When asked about the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law-enforcement agencies to seize an individual’s property without requiring that the individual be charged or convicted of a crime, 59 percent of Trump voters found common ground with their liberal counterparts, responding that that they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” with such policing practices.
Overall, the CKI poll surveyed 1,200 Americans who participated in the 2016 presidential election, and it measured their views on several criminal-justice issues such as civil asset forfeiture, overcriminalization, and mandatory minimum sentencing. The respondents included voters who identified as liberals, moderates, and conservatives, and it queried whether they voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
People surprised by the results of the poll ought to focus on one important figure: Fifty-four percent of Trump voters said they knew someone who is or has been incarcerated.
That may surprise progressives who accuse conservatives of being out of touch and aloof from criminal-justice realties, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody who works in the criminal-justice arena and regularly talks to conservatives about their views.
Between 70 million and 100 million people — or one in three Americans — may now have a criminal record. The criminal-justice system has become so vast and far reaching, that virtually every American has been personally involved with it, or has a loved one, friend, or neighbor involved with it.
Between 70 million and 100 million people — or one in three Americans — may now have a criminal record.
It’s also worth recalling that Trump easily won small towns and rural America on November 8, taking 62 percent of the rural vote, and these communities are the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, which in 2015 claimed an average of 91 lives per day from overdoses. The rate of overdose-related deaths now exceeds automobile accidents as the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States.
Increasingly, then, the Americans who experience criminal justice as a personal issue are rural conservatives.
Consider the example of Oklahoma. On the night that Trump won the presidency, voters also approved changes to the state criminal code that reclassified certain drug felonies as misdemeanors, effectively expressing the view that too many drug offenses in Oklahoma were being treated with needlessly long bouts of incarceration. Oklahomans appear to prefer better probation and parole that monitors drug offenders and provides them with treatment.
This referendum vote took place in a state in which every single county voted for Trump. A higher percentage of people (65.3 percent) voted for Trump in Oklahoma, than in any state, except Wyoming and West Virginia. It’s hard to be “Trumpier” than Oklahoma.
Leadership matters in public policy, and for that reason, it would be good to see clear support for criminal-justice reform from the White House. Conservative legislators and governors, however, do not need to wait for cues from the administration. The conservative base is already providing them.
They have wanted criminal justice reform for a decade, and their minds did not change because of one election.
– Vikrant P. Reddy is a senior research fellow with the Charles Koch Institute in Arlington, Va.