Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Should decarceration advocates push for federal reforms?

Writing in Vox, John Pfaff dislikes Cory Booker's Reverse Mass Incarceration Act for two principle reasons. First, he thinks it reacts to a misdiagnosis, seeking federal legislation because liberals to his mind wrongly blame the Clinton 1994 Crime Bill for the rise of mass incarceration. Pfaff thinks its role is overstated and that federal legislation can't do much to reduce incarceration in the states. Second, he thinks it will unnecessarily gin up enemies - in particular prison guards and prosecutors.

Grits thinks these concerns are overblown. Yes, the role of the 1994 Crime Bill has been overstated. But Pfaff undersells its importance in galvanizing support for tuff-on-crime legislation in the culture at large, and especially among Democrats, that trickled down to the state level. (In Texas, for example, the push for it helped sell Ann Richards' concurrent billion dollar bond issue she pushed to triple the size of our prison system.) Booker's bill, or perhaps a more bipartisan version, theoretically could do the same for 21st century pols, especially among the GOP, where the Right-on-Crime movement provides a ready vehicle for conservatives who wish to embrace justice reforms.

Second, it's a huge mistake to fantasize that decarceration can be achieved without fighting the institutional opposition like prosecutors, police unions, prison guards, and Chamber-of-Commerce types from rural prison towns. They're going to fight because their interests are threatened. Avoiding the fight is impossible and change can't happen until the fight is won. So Grits sees little sense in putting it off. The thing to do is pick the field of battle with the greatest near-term hope for success and begin slugging it out.

In my own experience, the processes such conflicts generate - the back and forth, the interrogation of claims, the debates over values, the competing demands on politicians, and even the interest-splitting compromises - are in fact how change occurs in a (small-r) republican system: Slowly and incrementally, the same way mass incarceration was created.

But that won't occur unless we start, everyone should start where they are, and since Cory Booker is in the US Senate, to Grits, it's fine if he starts there.


Steve Boehm said...

Excellent post, Grits.

Pfaff has done important work reframing and refocusing the conversation about mass incarceration, but his objection to the Booker-Blumenthal bill seems inconsistent with Pfaff’s own view that in order to address the problem, we have to change the culture and its overemphasis on punishment. This is a profoundly difficult thing to do, and it certainly won’t happen without directly confronting entrenched beliefs and interests. The Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress clearly do not speak with one voice, so this bill could help turn the tide.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Steve. BTW, did you see my review of Pfaff's book?

Steve Boehm said...

I did, and I appreciate the efforts of people like you to really dig into the complex policy implications of these large ideas. I'm definitely not that guy. As I said, I think Pfaff's work is an important effort to move the conversation into more productive channels. My biggest concern is that he underestimates how enormously difficult it is to "change the culture." If it can be done, it will be the result of winning a series of small battles until the scales finally tip and the momentum shifts in a new direction. Many of those battles can be won by finding the common ground with conservatives, a point you have made repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

Law is blind! We must help her. Definitions are very important and we must insist that they be correct for the people to understand.

Take the charge of Sexual Assault, it is the second most important law next to murder. The courts know that it is very difficult to defend yourself against an accuser and some courts use it to their benefit.

Sexual assault used to be called rape, where there is penetration unwanted.
Molestation was when there was unwanted touching.

There is a difference and the law is unjust for profit.

When an accused has served their full time, why are they penalized for the rest of their lives?