Voters now agree with Warren

Her 2018 claim that criminal justice system is racist now mainstream view

IN AUGUST 2018, Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave a speech in which she delivered what she called “the hard truth about our criminal justice system.” According to Warren, the criminal justice system is “racist…I mean front to back.” At the time, her comments seemed daring and controversial, and they set off a firestorm of criticism from police, Gov. Charlie Baker, and other Republicans.

Less than two years later, polling suggests her assessment is now a mainstream point of view.

I’ve been working for the last couple of years with a politically and socially diverse set of veteran campaign managers, academics, chiefs of staff, and political analysts from across Massachusetts. We’ve been speaking weekly and polling regularly in an effort to better understand the perspectives of Massachusetts voters. Among the issues we’ve been focused on are race and criminal justice.

While we’ve been quarantined, we’ve seen heavily-armed white protestors storm the Michigan state capitol and threaten police with no consequences. We’ve seen a black man, George Floyd, killed by a white police officer while lying on the ground in custody. We’ve seen Amy Cooper, a white business executive, try to weaponize the police against a black birdwatcher who asked her to put a leash on her dog. New examples arise almost every day.

As millions of Americans have taken to the streets to protest racism in the criminal justice system, political leaders across the country — and across the political spectrum — are talking about finally addressing problems that have plagued our country for centuries. Are these welcome developments merely a short-lived reaction to recent events, or do they reflect a deeper shift in public opinion on racism in the criminal justice system?

A few weeks after Warren’s August 2018 remarks, we polled Massachusetts voters to see what they thought about her comments. Did they agree that the criminal justice system is racist from “front to back”?

Given the controversy surrounding the remarks, we were surprised to find that this view was actually shared by large numbers of voters — 56 percent either very strongly agreed (34 percent) or somewhat agreed (22 percent). Sixty-four percent of women agreed, along with 45 percent of independents, and 61 percent of people in greater Boston. On the other side, 37 percent of voters said they either didn’t agree “at all” (21 percent) or that they didn’t agree “very much” (16 percent).

In the days after a Minneapolis police officer was recorded on May 25 killing George Floyd, we polled Massachusetts voters again, asking the same question. There has been a dramatic shift.

Now, nearly half of voters strongly agree with Warren’s assessment (48 percent), while 25 percent somewhat agree. This means that nearly three out of every four Massachusetts voters say they believe the criminal justice system is at least somewhat “racist.” Those who disagreed had shrunk to 24 percent, evenly split between those who didn’t agree “very much” and those who didn’t agree “at all.”

The new shift in public opinion is apparent across boundaries of age and gender. Now, 74 percent of women agree with the idea that the system is biased along with 68 percent of men. As for age breakdowns, 67 percent of voters over 75 agreed that the system is at least somewhat racist, joining the 85 percent of voters under 35 who felt the same way. The only place where we identified a split is across party lines: While 85 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents agreed with the statement, only 49 percent of Republicans agreed. Still, the fact that nearly half of self-identified Republicans think the criminal justice system is at least somewhat racist represents a remarkable milestone in public opinion.

There is work to do to on specific policy changes and reforms. But policy-makers need to know how dramatically public opinion has shifted. This is a wake-up call: While the time is always right to do what’s right, the public is ready today for leadership to address racism in the criminal justice system.

 Evan Falchuk ran for governor in 2014 on the United Independent Party ticket. He is currently CEO of VillagePlan, a Boston-based health care technology company.