Focusing on costs and public safety may be the best way to get policymakers to limit the high level of incarceration in the United States, several panelists agreed at an Open Society Institute conference on an “integrative approach to justice reform” on Saturday in Bethesda, Md. The essential message should be that “the fiscal, personal, and community impact of long-term incarceration is not working,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, a staff member of the House Judiciary Committee’s crime and criminal justice subcommittee. McCurdy said that even with the expanded Democratic majority in the House, a bipartisan coalition on the issue is needed because many new Democrats were elected in formerly Republican districts.
Advocates should frame the issue as “getting smart” rather than “getting tough,” said Robert Gordon of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank headed by John Podesta, president-elect Barack Obama’s transition chief. Bill Christenson of “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids,” said that reformers should work to keep their messages to lawmakers concise and fact-filled. “People don’t want to hear ‘thug-hugging,” he said. “They want to know what works.” Panelists agreed that members of Congress often are influenced by what stories are emphasized in their local news media. The panel was part of a two-day conference called “Behind the Cycle” that took up issues like “Race, Poverty, and Social Issues Fueling the Cycle of Incarceration.”