Will a Polarized National Climate Derail Justice Reforms?

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John Tilley

John Tilley, a veteran Kentucky legislator who is now secretary of the governor's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, is optimistic reforms will continue. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Can justice reform be achieved in a polarized national political climate?

Three state and municipal politicians said Wednesday that re-framing the issues by looking at how individuals experienced the inequities of the justice system could ensure that the bipartisan movement for reform continues.

John Tilley, secretary of Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and a Democrat who has helped spearhead a radical transformation of the state’s sentencing code, said he had begun to see cracks in the once-solid bipartisan support for reform in his state.

“It only takes three or four voices in a 138-person legislature in the [State] House and Senate to derail any good effort,” Tilley said at a John Jay College conference on the jail crisis.

But he said that utilizing a “pro-family” framework that stresses the way mass incarceration separates children and parents can counter a climate that seemed to be defaulting on a “tough on crime” approach.

“Maybe it’s easier to not take any political risks when [you’re] up for reelection every two to four years,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to be tough on crime.”

This attitude among legislators makes it all the more important for advocates to take control of the narratives surrounding reforms.

Speaking to the need to inform the public of why reform matters, he quoted the late broadcaster Eric Sevareid: “Never underestimate your listener’s intelligence, or overestimate your listener’s information.”

“Once you go to a civic group and once you explain, they get it,” he said. “The business community buys it. The constituents buy it. But you’ve got to explain it.”

John Bauters

John Bauters, mayor of Emoryville, Ca. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

John Bauters, mayor of Emoryville, Ca., and director of government relations at Californians for Safety and Justice, said paying attention to how ordinary people intersect with the justice system can make a significant difference in winning support.

“Attitudes evolve with time, and narratives are what change and what catch up with people in terms of how they perceive reforms: everything from prison overcrowding to whether a person with a felony conviction should have the right to vote,” Bauters said.

He found that legislators were particularly influenced by the testimony of the formerly incarcerated.

“Oftentimes, you need to have the narrative come from a person who is living the experience of what over-incarceration looks like,” he said.

Citing the example of a veteran who suffered PTSD and whose repeated contact with the justice system as a result of his mental health condition left him unable to find employment or housing, Bauters said, “It’s a prize when somebody who they don’t expect walks into the legislator’s office and talks to them about their experience with mass incarceration.”

Victims provided another perspective he believed was underrepresented in the discourse surrounding incarceration, and that, if included, would shift the needle from a retributive to a restorative model.

“When we decentralize the narrative away from what crime victims need, we lose the sense of justice we’re trying to promote through the carceral system,” he said.

“Anywhere between two out of three and three out of four people who have been victims nationally want healing, treatment and reconciliation over criminal punishment and incarceration.”

Bauters and Tilley were joined by Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican who has been a leading player in reforms instituted by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Chuck Elfstration

Georgia legislator Chuck Elfstration. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

“Politics can be very contentious many times,” he said. “But luckily, there’s been broad bipartisan understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of these issues.”

Efstration said the efforts by Deal, a two-term governor, to explain the rationale behind justice reform to conservatives in his state had helped ensure that most criminal justice reform legislation passed the Georgia legislature with “unanimous or close to unanimous support.”

He believed the tough-on-crime rhetoric promoted by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions would ultimately not derail the reform process, and that some White House initiatives, such as the effort to promote counseling and education to prison inmates before their release, were welcome signs.

Bauter said changing language was another key part of getting constituents and key players on board with reform.

Regarding the common usage of the words “felon” and “offender,” he said, “Imagine if you were only called by a noun that described the single worst thing you ever did in your life. Imagine if you were called cheater or liar everywhere you went.”

“Now imagine what your prospects are if everywhere you go, you’re referred to as a felon.”

He added: “If you identify someone by the worst thing they’ve ever done, and not the most sympathetic thing they’ve ever experienced, you’ve prejudiced the community’s understanding of what’s really going on.”

The panelists stressed the importance of building coalitions, and encouraged reform advocates to be open to unlikely partnerships.

Tilley said that reformers in Kentucky had found an ally in the business community, which spoke up in favor of reducing incarceration when the growth in jail and prison populations began decimating the state’s workforce.

“We cannot fill the jobs we have,” he said. “So they have taken an active role since 2009,” pressing for less punitive policies and providing job training in reentry programs within prisons.

Such investments have proven mutually beneficial, aiding returning citizens in reintegrating into society and providing businesses with much-needed labor.

“There’s tremendous potential and talent behind these walls,” Tilley said.

Efstration spoke of a similar collaboration between education providers and prisons in Georgia.

“We’ve had a great expansion of technical college opportunities in coordination with the Department of Corrections,” he said.

The resulting certifications ensure that “upon a person’s release, there are employment opportunities immediately available. People are certified to practice in that area already, as soon as they get out.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR News Intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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