Sarah Pillard, Georgetown Day '17







With 2.3 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. To put this in perspective, the US is imprisoning people at a rate five to ten times higher than countries like France, Canada, and the United Kingdom (ACLU Prison Project, 2017). While the US makes up only 5% of the world’s population, our prisoners make up 25% of the world’s prison population. In the last 30 years, there has been a 500 percent increase in incarceration. This rise has disproportionately affected people of color. More than 60% of our prison population is made up of racial and ethnic minorities (Coalition for Public Safety, 2017). If the current growth rate continues, the NAACP has predicted that one in three black men will go to prison in their lifetimes. Compare this number to how many white men are predicted to be incarcerated—1 in 17—and the intersection between mass incarceration and race is unavoidable, as is the urgency in addressing this national crisis.


In recent years, the country has been more bitterly divided than ever. On almost every issue, the Republican party moves farther right while the Democratic party moves left. The outlying issue in this trend is criminal justice reform. Unlike immigration, gun rights, reproductive healthcare, and other issues that vie for public attention, mass incarceration is something about which Republicans and Democrats have come together in recent years. Even Newt Gingrich, a staunch conservative said “the criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it” in a 2011 Washington Post op-ed (Washington Post, 2011).


Bipartisanship with regard to mass incarceration is not new. What is new is the shared concern. In fact, the laws that dramatically increased the US prison population themselves were largely bipartisan. Ronald Reagan is often cited as the leader of the “tough on crime” movement that emerged during his War on Drugs. The movement sparking mass incarceration began as Republican, but grew with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Perhaps most significantly, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which contributed to already rising incarceration rates (BBC, 2016).


Among other provisions, the bill implemented “three strike” mandatory minimums, which reduced judicial discretion in sentencing. The Act also increased funding to hire more police officers and expand the prison system, and increased the number of crimes eligible for capital punishment (BBC, 2016). Clinton was most assuredly not the only Democrat that supported “tough on crime” legislation, and the leading Republicans also continued to support the movement.


How did this bipartisan movement shift gears from incarceration to decarceration? Bipartisan organizations—like the Coalition for Public Safety, which partners with both the American Civil

Liberties Union and Koch Industries, among other liberal and conservative organizations and companies—are working actively to reduce mass incarceration. In the Senate, Democratic leaders such as Cory Booker and Patrick Leahy have been working closely with Republican leaders, including Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, to reform the criminal justice system. As it was formed, so is it being reformed: through a bipartisanship out of reach for most other political hot topics.


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, research showed little to no correlation between higher incarceration rates and lower crime rates (Brennan Center for Justice, 2015). Not only is mass incarceration ineffective, it is also extremely costly. The 2008 Great Recession forced government officials to consider the cost of imprisoning so many people. At Rikers Island in New York, about $100,000 was spent per inmate in 2014 (AP, 2013). Charles Colson, a Nixon aide who spent time in prison for Watergate crimes, brought Republican attention to mass incarceration through a Christian missionary designed for the “redemption” of the incarcerated that evolved into a movement that focused on humane conditions in prisons and education and programming for inmates. Republicans for criminal justice reform have also raised concerns about centralized government power. Liberal academics like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, began to more concretely connect issues of race and class to criminal justice, and portray the cycle of poverty that incarceration enforces and often produces.


While the Republican and Democratic parties have different reasons for backing the criminal justice reform movement, the two parties are both making positive steps to reform the long-broken criminal justice system. Conservative states like Georgia and Texas are seeing drops in incarceration rates for the first time in decades, as they have been spending more money on drugs and mental health treatment and less on building new prisons. Oklahoma was the state that had the biggest margin of victory for Trump, and on that same day voters in that state voted to reduce criminal sentences on drug and property crimes. In January 2015, former president Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons. Legislation in many states followed, limiting solitary confinement, particularly for juvenile inmates. And while the numbers, over 2 million people behind bars today, are daunting, every bit of work that both parties do toward prison reform helps thousands.