The American Punishment System is Destroying Trust in Government

Trust in the rules and institutions of a society is critical to its functioning—but what happens when people no longer feel like they can have faith in public infrastructure, policies, and even the law itself? When people don’t trust or feel represented by the laws that govern them and the enforcers of those laws—police and court systems—the health of a democracy is threatened as people disengage from the political process. 

Politicians routinely fail to acknowledge the harm that the criminal legal system imposes on a massive swath of their voter base—not just the people accused of crimes, but their families and loved ones, as well as victims and witnesses of violence. At this point, nearly half of Americans have had a loved one incarcerated. The days of political leaders brushing these concerns aside as “niche” has been swallowed by the reality of our mass-incarceration era. It is unsurprising that most people who come into contact with this system face disrespect, bias, and neglect, and therefore lose trust in it.

Even more broadly, polling reveals that the American public is unsatisfied with the policies that govern them, threatening their trust in public infrastructure. Despite the way politicians and the media portray voters’ opinions on crime policy, the vast majority of Americans do not support “tough-on-crime” practices that over-rely on police, prisons, and punishment. For the most part, people don’t simply want more police, fuller jails, or harsher sentences. They want their neighbors to have a roof over their heads, kids to be able to go to school, people struggling with mental health issues to get the care they need, people to have access to jobs to provide for their families. Yes, they want safer streets. But, based on the research, people want policies that prevent crime in the first place and make communities safer through access to opportunities that create stability.

When the policies that shape our criminal legal system get farther and farther away from what people actually want, they reduce trust and public order. Enacting policies that reflect what the public really wants—fewer people behind bars and greater access to things like healthcare, housing, education, and jobs—and ensuring that our delivery of those policies is grounded in care and community—not hyper-surveillance, racial discrimination, and harsh punishment—is the key to building public trust and boosting political engagement.

For more details---including some eye-opening polling---click below to read our full report.

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