With recent reports that aspiring presidential candidates Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and Senator Marco Rubio, have both bucked the growing wave of bipartisan agreement about reforming criminal justice in this country, suddenly what looked like a slam dunk reform movement may be in jeopardy again. Up until recently, there has been a growing bipartisan consensus in favor of reforming criminal sentencing and reducing our swollen prison populations. At the national level, bills like the REDEEM Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act seemed to have a real chance. But with the 2016 election season starting, some people will just do anything to win. Both of the men in question are dependent on the private prison lobby for campaign funding, a lobby which demands a constant flow of new prisoners just in order to keep its profits up. No doubt the governor and the senator plan to play the “fear of crime” card at the presidential level again, and we know very well that’s the racist card too. That’s why language about this issue is going to really matter.
In early 2013, the U.S. justice Department launched a program named “Smart on Crime.” It included a review of the criminal justice system in order to identify much needed reforms. But putting the focus on “crime” in the title just plays into the hands of those whose game plan is to revive vague public fear of “crime,” with prison as the all-purpose solution. If we say “smart on prison dollars” instead, the focus goes to the problem—prisons, and their cost, which has a lot of persuasive power right now. Although the progressive/liberal argument for sentencing reform is moral and about building true community security, the current climate of debate in our country is dominated by conservative values. So we will be better off to focus first on the waste of tax payer dollars on ineffective mass incarceration.
If we can get the initial framing right, we can add a lot of persuasive power to a few of the hopeful signs out there that criminal justice reform can survive the 2016 campaign. Recently two Republican governors, Governor Snyder of Michigan and Governor Bentley of Alabama, signed historic reforms into law. And it has even been reported that the infamous Koch brothers are actually on the correct side of the criminal justice reform issue, for a change. Despite their strong support for Scott Walker in other ways, some pundits speculate that the Kochs may hope to influence Walker to move away from a campaign attack on commonsense criminal justice reform. Senator Rand Paul is also taking a strong stand in favor of it. Although the majority of criminal justice reform must take place at the state level, the coming presidential campaign will raise the level of visibility and debate on the issue in ways that will inevitably affect state politics across the nation.
Though it might feel funny to be on the same side as the Kochs about anything, that kind of “strange bedfellows” behavior is one of the best things about the classic One Big American Family style in politics. That means the following: “The most important thing about this ‘one big family’ frame is exactly this way people focus on real problem solving together, looking at what really works and what doesn’t, emphasizing what they agree on (saving public money, for example), having a shared goal they work for even if their reasons for wanting
the result differ. . .” (quote from the One Big American Family style).
A fine example of how well this can actually work comes from the results of Living Room Conversations (LRC) on criminal justice. Says founder Joan Blades, “Living Room Conversations have demonstrated extraordinary power to transform the debate.” Indeed, their work on criminal justice reform is an outstanding case in point. Starting with a “conversation” between Joan and Mark Meckler of Tea Party Patriots in January 2013 about this subject, LRC went on to convene a meeting in DC in October 2014 of leaders from the left, the right, the beltway and beyond to talk about opportunities to work together on the issue. That helped inspire the creation of the remarkable cross-partisan Coalition for Public Safety, which includes such unlikely partners as the ACLU and Koch Industries, among others.
We can hope that the momentum of these efforts will be strong enough to overcome an ugly presidential campaign attack. But just in case, let’s also say “smart on prison dollars” everywhere we can, because we the people are going to need to hear it from each other too, all through the long and dreary election season coming up. Even the Kochs can’t do it all by themselves!