Monday, February 03, 2020

Trump Super Bowl ad bolsters red-state #cjreform prospects

It's a sign of changing times that two Super Bowl ads ran yesterday (worth >$5 million each) related to criminal-justice reform. One was from the NFL (on police shootings), which I suppose could be considered a house ad. But the more surprising one by far was a new commercial from President Donald Trump's re-election campaign touting his clemency for Alice Free and passage of the First Step Act, which among other things shortened sentences for thousands of presently incarcerated federal prisoners.

Having spent more than $5 million on a Super Bowl ad, it seems highly likely we'll see this message quite a bit more in the coming weeks and months. The only reason you spend that kind of money is to launch a broader campaign. So this is a signal the First Step Act will be a central focus of the president's re-election message for at least part of the year. That can only help downstream reform efforts.

Grits found Trump's ad a bit odd and overstated, but from a big-picture perspective, I'm thrilled he ran it. As I wrote following the First Step Act's passage, the president's endorsement makes it harder for state-level Rs to adopt anti-#cjreform rhetoric and easier to embrace it. Now, "With Donald Trump's full-throated endorsement of the First Step Act, and with his son-in-law championing it in his administration, conservative Republicans supporting #cjreform are aligning themselves with the president headed into the next election."

To be clear, President Trump's record on criminal-justice issues has mostly been atrocious going back to the 1980s when he took out newspaper ads hounding the system to apply the death penalty to the Central Park Five (who were later exonerated, see Ava Duvernay's When They See Us). But even stopped clocks are right twice per day, and whatever one may wish it did besides what it did, the First Step Act was an improvement over the status quo and led to the release of thousands of already sentenced people earlier than would otherwise be the case.

At the Texas Legislature, proposals that release already-sentenced prisoners early based on good behavior or programming success have long been a third rail. It's why Texas has prison units that could be mistaken for nursing homes and incur exploding end-of-life healthcare costs. But even among conservatives, opinion is shifting. Following the most recent legislative session, the Texas Public Policy Foundation expanded its agenda to include adjusting parole policies to allow more releases. (I interviewed TPPF's Marc Levin about this last summer, listen here beginning at ~12 minute mark.)

Now, critics of such policies find themselves on the wrong side of the president's re-election messaging. That doesn't mean there won't be resistance to #cjreform initiatives, but it arguably helps undermine opposition to them.

MORE: On Twitter, former Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman and well-known GOP justice reformer Jerry Madden says he thinks Trump campaigning on #cjreform helps in blue states, too. Maybe so, I only feel qualified to speak reliably on Texas. But my sense is that Democrats will either consider the ad a ploy and ignore it, or else criticize the First Step Act for not doing more, which is what they were already doing anyway.

It's on the GOP side where this has the potential to shift the terms of debate. If the Trump campaign follows up this $5 million expenditure with millions more to promote the message in the coming weeks and months, which is how these things generally work, it will encourage his base to gravitate toward Right-on-Crime-type positions they would have criticized had Hillary Clinton adopted them.

Mass incarceration arose in the first place because, 25-30 years ago, there existed an unwavering bipartisan consensus in favor of making the system harsher. We won't ever reverse all that until both parties support overturning that generational policy error. Perhaps I'm being too sanguine. But if the Trumpian base begins to internalize #cjreform messaging as a result of this election cycle, and if reformers succeed in scaling back the carceral system, then maybe, down the line, history could recall this ad and the reaction to it as an important part of the story of how a new, de-carceral consensus was developed.


Steven Michael Seys said...

Scott, I don't begrudge advertisements on a blog, but I do hope these advertisers are paying you for the privilege of showcasing their messages. As someone who has experienced the worst of the "justice" system in the "throw-away-the-key" era, I am grateful to see that others will not have to lose so much of their lives to no constructive purpose. The urge for vengeance is destructive to the vengeful as much as it is to the one on whom it is taken.

Steven Michael Seys said...

Post Script: I see you cleaned up the ads while I was typing that comment. Good job.