Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Changing the Politics of Mass Incarceration

Changing the Politics of Mass Incarceration


It’s been almost 50 years since President Richard Nixon played the law-and-order card to help him win the presidency. Decades later Donald Trump has adopted the same playbook, telling his own version of the forgotten American who is at the mercy of a crime wave. It didn’t matter that facts didn’t support candidate Trump’s arguments. Politically speaking, it worked.

Nixon’s tough on crime political playbook, used by generations of American politicians after him, including Bill Clinton during the introduction and passage of the 1994 crime bill, has resulted in a mass incarceration crisis. On any given day, 2.3 million people are locked up, more than in any other nation. This mass incarceration crisis has devastated families and communities, particularly low income communities of color.

Yet in the same way that politics got us into this mess, politics have to get us out of it.

I spend a lot time thinking about how we end mass incarceration in the United States. On some days, it feels like we’re winning. Not a month goes by when we’re not getting some form of criminal justice reform legislation passed in the states or litigation won in the courthouses, whether on bail reform, drug or property law reform, or reforms to mandatory minimum laws.

Yet on many other days it feels like we’re losing, badly. Incarceration has only decreased 5 percent since 2009. We now spend roughly $80 billion per year on incarceration alone. And the poisonous rhetoric of law-and-order still spews out towards us on a daily basis. In many places, including in the White House today, when a politician needs a bump, he still relies on the law-and-order narrative borne out of the Nixon years.

But what if it didn’t have to be like this? What if criminal justice reform advocates on the right and left, the broader civil rights community, and more politicians jumped into electoral fights with the same vigor as the law-and-order crowd but not being scared to talk about compassion, rehabilitation and reinvestment as a replacement of law-and-order?

There are glimmers of hope that this strategy can work, and it is coming from surprising places. For decades it had been assumed that the only way to win an election for one of America’s approximately 3,000 district attorney seats is by being the toughest, least compassionate candidate in the race. Yet in several cities and counties this is beginning to change.

Philadelphia has most recently exemplified this phenomenon. The city has a long history of electing politicians who ran on a law-and-order platform. Former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo took pride in being a “tough cop.” Lynne Abraham, elected district attorney of Philadelphia from 1991 to 2010, was called America’s “Deadliest D.A.” by the New York Timesbecause of her zeal for pursuing the death penalty. For reformers living in that era, it would have been impossible to imagine a politician who could win on a criminal justice reform agenda, let alone a politician running to be the city’s top prosecutor.

Yet today, the leading candidate for Philadelphia district attorney is a civil rights lawyer who has never been a prosecutor, and who won the Democratic primary running on a platform centered on criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration. With the overwhelming advantage for Democrats in the general election, it is fair to assume that Larry Krasner will be Philadelphia’s next district attorney.

The turn of events didn’t happen by accident. It represented a strategy deployed by local and national criminal justice and civil rights organizations (including, to name a few, the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, Color of Change, Safety and Justice PAC, and the Working Families Party). Support poured in to engage in aggressive voter education and turnout efforts, elevating the importance of alternatives to incarceration, bail reform, and rejection of policing practices that criminalized communities.

The ACLU alone organized our 11,438 members who are registered to vote in Philadelphia, knocking on more than 26,000 doors and hiring and training 51 canvassers who are formerly incarcerated to approach our members, in a non-partisan way, about why it was important to vote for a district attorney committed to ending mass incarceration. Our preliminary analysis reveals that our members, even ones who have note voted in recent elections, responded to our outreach by casting a ballot in this election. And the strategy succeeded by elevating the issue of ending mass incarceration to the forefront of the election.

Philadelphia is not alone in this example, as reform candidates have begun winning in cities and counties across the nation. But while prosecutors are the most powerful politicians in the criminal justice system, there are many additional actors who need to be held accountable.

Similar strategies and resources must now be deployed in elections up and down the ticket. In fact, state and local races are usually where it matters most in the fight to end mass incarceration. Ninety-percent of people who are incarcerated in the United States are under state and local jurisdiction. A state governor or assembly member matter a lot more when it comes to criminal justice reform than a congress member. It may be more interesting to talk about United States senators, but a state senator has much more power in deciding who and how many people are locked up in prisons and jails.

In the past few weeks alone, the ACLU has launched voter education efforts related to prosecutorial races in California, Oregon, Massachusetts and New York. In 2018, we will double down on this strategy and deploy it all over the nation, expanding it beyond prosecutors to include politicians of all types who decide the fate of the millions of people incarcerated in our nation today.

For the politics of mass incarceration to genuinely change, electoral strategies must use all of the tactics in the political handbook that candidates for office have perfected. This includes strategic get-out-the-vote efforts, phone banking, mailers to voters, and more. It must also include pressuring the party machines on both the left and right to elevate the importance of criminal justice reform. There has been a lot of talk over the years about how criminal justice reform is one of the few remaining bipartisan issues. Well now it’s time to test that theory in political races on the right and on the left.

We’ve seen it happen before in the United States; culture and political incentives change. Yet it never happens accidentally, but rather through the concerted efforts of organizers and activists and voters demanding a different way. The time has come to retake what it means to keep communities safe, and to change the incentives for politicians who shape our nation’s criminal justice system.

We can’t legislate or litigate our way out of mass incarceration. But we can and must change the culture and politics that have led to mass incarceration in the first place.