Opinion

Our leaders can’t waste this opportunity to advance criminal justice reform

State Se, Gerald Malloy
State Se, Gerald Malloy

This week the president of the United States, along with the various candidates seeking that office, will come to South Carolina to discuss criminal justice reform. There is no better place to have that discussion than here in South Carolina, which has been a leader in criminal justice reform.

As this esteemed group gathers to discuss this tremendously important topic, I would hope that the opportunity is not hijacked by those who would use it to score political points.

We should not allow petty partisanship and slights that are real or imagined to hurt our chance to have the bipartisan cooperation that is needed to reform our criminal justice system.

In the past, criminal justice reform has been one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats — conservatives and liberals — have been able to find common ground and work together for the benefit of our states and nation.

Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all been able to sign landmark reform bills that resulted from people of goodwill working together for a common goal.

In 2010 I authored a bipartisan piece of sentencing reform legislation that made our state a national leader in the use of evidence-based policies. Our reform was among the earliest and most comprehensive in a wave of state sentencing and corrections reforms. It was a geographic, racial and ideological mix of elected officials who came together to implement a criminal justice reform package that is lauded and copied across the country.

It was a mix of Republicans and Democrats who worked together to reduce the prison population by thousands — a process that ensured that those who committed serious violent crimes would be in prison.

Our efforts gave us the opportunity to use alternative sentences to get lower-level offenders out of the prison pipeline so that they could get the help they needed to be reintroduced into society (while also cutting the rates of recidivism).

And our efforts allowed our state to close seven prisons and save our state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Our work did not end there: we have continued with this bipartisan partnership on criminal justice and juvenile justice reform for several years.

We have been able to do this by not demonizing those on the other side of the aisle — and by seeking accord and compromise where possible. No legislator has gotten 100 percent of what he or she has wanted. But because everyone has given a little in what they wanted, the entire state has gotten a lot.

I hope that our national leaders will take note of the work that’s being done by the states — and help to provide us with funding for supervision and drug and mental health treatment programs that can vastly assist in these criminal justice reform efforts.

We need our national leaders to listen to the recommendations of the states, and to the groups that operate in a nonpartisan fashion.

Most of all, we do not need them to use this as an opportunity to attack each other.

We are on the right track; we are in a rare and important moment.

We need to roll up our sleeves.

We need to get to work to find real solutions based on evidence.

It is natural for candidates to try to differentiate themselves from each other, but in the fervor for reform there is great risk of re-weaponizing the politics of crime.

Doing so will be detrimental to criminal justice reform.

Do not go there.

Do not blow it.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Democrat, has represented Senate District 29 since 2002. Malloy is chairman of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Task Force, and he has held numerous positions on commissions and boards addressing criminal justice.

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