October is messaging month on the University of Pretrial, which means we will be holding special events throughout the month aimed at helping people communicate effectively about pretrial justice. In addition, last Tuesday—National Voter Registration Day—reminded us of something else we can all do in October to send a message about criminal justice policies: register to vote in November. (If you’re not registered yet, please click on the link; you can register in minutes.)
Voter turnout in the United States is notoriously fickle. It goes up during presidential election cycles (in 2016, turnout was 60 percent) and down during midterm cycles (turnout was less than 36 percent in 2014). In any year, voting in local elections is an important opportunity to influence criminal justice policy.
Depending on where you live, judges, prosecutors, police chiefs, and sheriffs are up for election—and their positions on pretrial justice matter. Judges can decide what role, if any, money bond plays in the courtroom; prosecutors and law enforcement have enormous discretion in whether or how people are charged, or whether people with mental health and substance use needs will be diverted to treatment. In recent years, prosecutors and other elected officials have included bail reform in their platforms and won.
Many people are unaware of the power these officials have to change criminal justice policy. A poll from the ACLU of Massachusetts found that half of the registered voters surveyed believe individual district attorneys have only a “minor or insignificant impact on the functioning of the criminal justice system”—and almost four in 10 (38 percent) did not know that district attorneys are elected and accountable only to voters. However, knowledge leads to action: After learning about the impact that prosecutors can have on individual lives and communities, four out of five voters (81 percent) said they were more likely to pay attention to their local district attorney race.
Our own nationwide poll shows that registered voters of all political perspectives are dissatisfied with the current criminal justice system. Ninety-one percent support reform—with 19 percent calling for a complete overhaul of the system. Only 6 percent see no need for change. The poll also showed strong backing for community-based programs and supports to help people return to court while keeping us all safe. Seventy-seven percent endorse court reminders and supervision, which are proven ways to increase court appearance and public safety. Seventy-seven percent support providing services for people with substance use disorders, and nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) endorse services for people with mental health needs.
To make America’s criminal justice system fairer, safer, more effective, and smaller, voters need to demonstrate their concerns to the keepers of the system’s front door.