Obama's Mass Incarceration Reform, and Framing a Policy as a Win for Both Sides

President Obama is taking on mass incarceration with broad attempts at sentencing reform and re-integration of felons into society.

It's a daunting task, and at first glance may seem surprisingly ambitious. Republicans in Congress have tended to oppose the president on most of his initiatives over the past 6 years, and still hold a majority in both houses of Congress. Whether the appointment of Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House will increase legislative productivity or improve the relationship between the President and Congress is yet to be seen.

But prison and sentencing reform is primed to walk a very different path than previous issues that the President has championed.

Republicans in Texas have been leading the country in state-level reforms (the Watchdog.org article tells the story well), and Republican presidential candidates Christie and Paul have made prison reform parts of their campaigns. In Texas, the beginnings of prison reform actually involved cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, albeit very quiet cooperation:

“Criminal justice reform is being celebrated as a kumbaya moment for left and right, but it's important to keep in mind that the two camps have come to this position through very different paths,” said report co-author David Dagan. “They certainly talked and collaborated along the way, but until recently that cooperation was kept very discreet to avoid tainting the credibility of the activists.”

Before we talk about how this cooperation came about, let's take a second look at the last sentence from that quote: these reformers had to keep their cooperation a secret lest it taint their credibility. In short, legislators had to keep their cooperation a secret from their voters because it is politically dangerous to be seen cooperating with the other party. Some media outlets (quoted in the Watchdog article) claimed that Republican support for prison reform was a blatant ploy to win the black vote. As much as Americans claim to want bipartisanship in their legislators, we have a pretty terrible tendency to punish them for just that.

But looking forward, prison reform could be a blueprint for successful bipartisan cooperation. The key may be embracing that each group in a coalition is going to sell a proposal to their constituencies in different ways.

How did it work in the case of prison reform? There is a lot of nuance for different groups within each party, but some broad strokes below show how different parties can come together for their own reasons:

Democrats: the American left has led the turn against the War on Drugs, and sees incarceration as a major social ill for poor and black communities in particular, propagating poverty and racial prejudice. They consider the treatment of prisoners in overcrowded and privately-run prisons as inhumane.

Republicans: The cost of growing incarceration means that budget-conscious Republicans see it as an unfair burden to taxpayers, and that the only way to reduce costs is to reduce prisoners. High recidivism rates are also driving many Republicans to claim that prisons have been an ineffective means of reducing crime: the combination of growing costs, bureaucracy, and ineffectiveness has made prisons a textbook target for the common Republican distaste for government bloat. 

As Texas has shut down prisons, it has opened up drug treatment centers, instead. According to the legislators there, it's both a more effective and less costly way of targeting drug use. It's a huge win for both sides.

The path for criminal justice reform at the national level may be more rocky: Washington suffers more from polarization and wedging than state legislatures. But the takeaway here is something that's been known in the business world for a long time: if you want to get a department, leader, party, faction, or constituency on board with an idea, it needs to be clear why that idea is a win for them and what they most care about. As citizens, we need to celebrate and reward when our political "opponents" find common ground with us, and ways to work together with us, even when they haven't been converted to our priorities. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.