Changing the status quo is hard; even when Dems and Republicans agree

There’s some real optimism for sentencing reform as people across the political spectrum are agreeing on the failure of our overly-punitive, overly expensive policies.  Rebecca Thorpe writes about it in the Monkey Cage:

Interest groups on the left and the right are finding common cause in prison reform, with backing both from the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the tea party-affiliated Freedom Works and arch-conservative Koch Industries. Locally and nationally, Republicans and Democrats together are crafting proposed reforms to moderate mandatory sentencing and drug laws. Both Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls are denouncing harsh punishments for nonviolent offenders. Some states are experimenting with the decriminalization of marijuana. Many observers are optimistic that mass incarceration will soon be undone.

Alas, two problems.  The first I’ve mentioned before:

First, there is a common misperceptionperpetuated by mainstream politicians who want to reform the criminal justice system that most prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders. This idea is false.

The second, though, is even harder.  This change is fighting entrenched interests who benefit from the status quo:

The second reason is more disturbing. Mass incarceration solved two major problems for a country whose collapsing industrial base left the poor and working classes without jobs.

The “tough on crime” movement did this in two ways. First, outsize numbers of jobless young black men who lived in impoverished urban districts were designated as criminals, taken off the streets and put in warehouses. Second, prisons became a jobs program for rural America…  [emphasis mine]

Instead, rural communities built hundreds of prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, accounting for most new prison growth. Local policymakers took advantage of the expanding prison sector’s demand for cheap land and untapped labor to bring jobs and capital to economically distressed, rural communities.

The political consequences are self-perpetuating. Alhough prisons do not typically improve the local economy in the long run, many underdeveloped rural spaces don’t have other jobs available. They come to rely on prisons for jobs and revenue, as much as if it were a new textile or auto parts factory. That creates political pressure to keep prisons full.

Second, the federal census counts prison inmates as residents of the communities where the prison is located. That inflates population counts in otherwise shrinking rural areas — and determines both how many political representatives the area gets as well as the formulas for state and federal support for such services as social welfare and economic development.

As a result, prison towns get more political representation and more local funding. Meanwhile, predominantly non-white urban communities lose both…

State lawmakers representing rural communities with correctional institutions make up a consistent and powerful voting bloc to uphold harsh sentencing laws and block criminal law reform. Prison jobs are extremely important for rural communities. That’s why some Democratic state legislators routinely defy their party’s leaders and oppose measures to curb imprisonment. Their districts’ reliance on prison jobs and capital trumps any concerns about state budgets and partisan pressures.

Depressing, isn’t it?  There’s no reason to give up hope, but just because we’ve got both left and right in general agreement is far from a guarantee of meaningful change.  Status quo bias can be a real bitch.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to Changing the status quo is hard; even when Dems and Republicans agree

  1. Jon K says:

    I am confused as to what the proposed remedy would be to fix the system. I am all for ending or seriously limiting the war on drugs. I am not interested in reducing punishment for murderers, serial rapists, or violent crimes that involve firearms. It seems like the article you linked to believes we need to reconsider punishment for violence. I believe prison is where the violent threats to society belong. I also believe that crimes like murder and rape deserve long punishment regardless of whether or not the offender represents an ongoing threat to society. That’s the whole point of punishment. If you intentionally kill in cold blood you deserve a harsh punishment. It serves as a warning to others that some behavior society will not tolerate.

    I just don’t see how Jeff skill ing should get over 20 years but apparently murderers shouldn’t if they appear no longer threatening. Jeff Skilling, or Bernie madoff, isn’t a threat to anyone’s safety yet are being punished. I feel if it is fair for them it is fair for violent felons.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Well, we would need shorter sentences for many violent offenders. We would need to be smart and judicious about it. We would also need to think about what qualifies as a “violent” offense. But, for one example. 20 years years for murder strikes me as a fairly substantial punishment (say, a bar fight), but is literally half as much as a 40 years sentence, but I suspect has 95% of the deterrent value, while requiring half as much of our scarcest criminal justice resource– prison space.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    I agree with Jon on cold blooded murderers staying in prison. But what about “hot” blooded murders or violent crimes of passion where it is thought that there was one target and others are not in danger. Or shorter sentences for violent crimes committed by people under 25 since the latest research shows these are the most violent years and the brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25.
    Psychopaths and sociopaths and mass killers should be treated like sexual predators since there is no known cure for that.
    I’m just thinking out loud.
    In any case, get rid of private prisons. It’s the State’s responsibility and no profit motive should be involved in the care of prisoners. We all know what that leads to.

    • Jon K says:

      yeah i came off a lot harsher than i meant to. i was stuck at an overstaffed municipal election with 10 workers and only a trickle of voters. i was able to read 2 300 page books in 13 hours while ‘working hard’ to serve.

      i basically agree with points you and dr greene made. the only hangups I have are psychopaths, and cold blooded murderers. Its the same way I feel about the death penalty. I think it should be abolished at the state level, but I think it should be available for federal courts in specific cases (eg terrorism or mass shooting spree) where guilt is clear and crime is especially terrible. I’m ok with shorter sentences in most cases, but sexual predators and cold blooded murderers don’t get any sympathy from me.

      Private prisions and the idea of prison as a jobs program I am against. I just think cold blooded murder must be punished harshly because it is something that society cannot allow to become any more acceptable than it already is.

      • Steve Greene says:

        And I think we can still do that and dramatically reduce incarceration. Again, even reducing a 60 year sentence to 40 puts a (probably harmless) 60 year ex-con on the street and frees up a prison bed for a 20-year old in his criminal prime.

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