For the past several years, both major political parties have touted their work on criminal justice reform as a way to demonstrate their commitment to one of the most pressing issues in Black communities. Recently, in a blatant attempt to scare voters and roll back important bipartisan policy victories, some politicians and opponents of criminal justice reform have seized on increases in gun violence and justifiable concerns about public safety to make crime the political wedge issue in this election cycle. Much of the rhetoric and political attack ads from these opponents have recycled the worst, most regressive framing of the “tough on crime” era to scapegoat criminal justice reform. Many are claiming to act on behalf of or in service to Black communities but veer far from the research on Black voters’ actual views on crime, safety, and incarceration.
While Black voters are not a monolith, their consensus on crime, safety and justice is clear: more arrests, more prosecutions, and more incarceration is not the best path to public safety and what communities really need to address gun violence and the inter-related problems of income inequality, housing insecurity, the mental health crisis, and drug overdoses is more investment in education, affordable housing, trauma recovery, treatment and other programs that also address the root causes of crime.
Black communities have more and better information about policy solutions having been at the forefront of recent reforms that have secured more safety and justice together. There is no criminal justice reform without Black voters. Black people have long been at the center of many of the most significant political, grassroots and intellectual advancements to end mass incarceration.
This clear understanding that more public safety and less incarceration are complementary rather than conflicting is not surprising given that the structural inequalities embedded in our society causes Black communities to bear a disproportionate share of the harms of both incarceration and of crime. In 2021, Black people were 15 percent more likely to have been the victims of a violent crime than white people and prior research shows that 68% of Black people or someone they care for has experienced gun violence. Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women and Black transgender women face higher levels of violence than transgender women of any other race. Despite being victimized at higher rates than other Americans, Black people are the least likely to receive the government support they need to heal and recover from crime.
At the same time, Black people have also long been the most harmed by incarceration and the extreme racial disparities that exist at every point in the criminal justice system and become even more acute at the deepest ends of the criminal justice system. Black people make up 14 percent of the population but 27 percent of the people who are arrested, 30 percent of the people on community supervision, and 32 percent of the people in prison. As a result, Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of white people and 50% more likely to have an immediate family member who has spent time in jail or prison.
While there are many false narratives right now about the public safety priorities of Black voters, the results of the recent polling conducted by Benenson Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies show that Black people are the most likely to want major reforms to the criminal justice system and to support policies to reduce incarceration. And while crime is a concern to Black voters, it is less of a concern than other issues that affect the safety of Black communities such as gun violence, racism and discrimination, and political extremism. As a result, Black voters roundly reject a return to the failed policies that contribute to community violence and led to mass incarceration in the first place.
Black voters want more safety and more justice and expect their elected officials and candidates to continue supporting bold criminal justice reforms.