Ingredients for successful prison reform are all here, if politics-as-usual doesn't spoil the batter

Ingredients for successful prison reform are all here, if politics-as-usual doesn't spoil the batter
© Greg Nash

Corrections reform is the rarified air of politics that seems to have universal appeal. We all agree that we want an effective corrections system - releasing people better than when they came in. We also know that it is a combination of incarcerating the right people for the right amount of time with the right individualized programming within a safe and humane environment that is necessary to achieve that.

The First Step Act gets us much closer to that ideal. While you can find the details of the bill elsewhere, the process was fascinating.

So what’s the formula for bi-partisan agreement on a major public policy in D.C.?

Ingredient #1 - I believe you must start by having a policy that is well thought out, researched and likely to deliver the promised outcomes, and most importantly, solves an identified problem. First Step Act - CHECK


Ingredient #2 - Legislative champions who have the courage, conviction and clout to navigate and ever more difficult landscape, a willingness to compromise without compromising the intent of the bill, and a willingness to share credit. First Step Act - CHECK

Ingredient #3 - Citizens who care about the issue. Everyone has constituents. In theory, a representative republic channels the voice of the citizenry through their elected representatives. Unfortunately, recent times have left many citizens feeling undervalued and not represented, but the loud voice of a people united moves even the most unlovable issues. The opioid epidemic, more than any criminal justice phenomenon over my lifetime, has given citizens otherwise unaware of the inner workings of America’s “justice system” an intimate view of it and they don’t like what they see – CHECK

Ingredient #4 - Smart, engaged, bipartisan advocacy. Over the past decade dozens of advocacy groups have formed from multiple perspectives – conservative and progressive, religious, families of the incarcerated, families of and victims/survivors, formerly incarcerated individuals – all of which care about good criminal justice policies. In many cases, these groups divide, not generally over substance, but rather over the age-old question: Did we go far enough? Great to see that in the case of the First Step Act the notion of not letting good be the enemy of great seems to have won over a plurality of this vocal and effective collective. - CHECK

Ingredient #5 - White House Ally. Rep. Glenn ThompsonGlenn (G.T.) W. ThompsonDreamers-for-wall trade going nowhere in House Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg denies selling 'anyone's data' | UK Parliament releases more Facebook docs | Canada reportedly arrests Huawei CFO | Fallout from Marriott hack | Cuba rolls out internet service for mobile users Bipartisan bill would create grant program promoting cybersecurity education MORE (R-Pa.) once told me that, in the arena of legislative affairs, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” The steady and committed voice of Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump hosts pastor who says 'Jews are going to hell' at White House Hanukkah party Mark Levin calls Trump 'first Jewish president' Kushner pens NY Times piece defending Trump order combating anti-Semitism MORE from inside the “inner circle” has no doubt moved the president perhaps more than any other one single factor. - CHECK

Ingredient #6 - Stakeholder group support. At the end of the day, as it relates to criminal justice matters, people want to hear from those on the front lines for their perspective. Early support from the Association of State Corrections Administrators (the women and men in charge of our state prison systems) and recent strong support from the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police should give even the most risk averse legislator the small iota of backbone required to push this over the goal line. - CHECK

Ingredient #7 - A “cause celeb.” As much as we hate it, and deny it, celebrity voices move public opinion significantly. Van Jones, Alyssa Milano, Kim Kardashian and John Legend headline a list of over 50 celebs who have used their sizeable  bully pulpit and given voice to this issue. - CHECK


The Secret Sauce: Unusual partners peeling away the partisan lens and pointing folks to common ground. When those who are diametrically opposed on most issues unite on a single issue, people take notice. While there may be many of these odd couples, in the spirit of Felix and Oscar, allow me to highlight two. The first may go down in criminal justice lore as the tipping point in criminal justice reform in America: the Koch Brothers and George Soros - gazillionaires who couldn’t be farther apart on the political spectrum who have dedicated money and influence to improve America’s criminal justice system. The second: Newt Gingrich and Van Jones. Fox News and CNN make nice. - CHECK

The Fly in the Ointment: McConnell/Cotton. Lest we dare allow ourselves to dream the bold dream that Washington, D.C. could actually pass evidence-based, logical, likely impactful and effective legislation absent the political shenanigans we have come to know as normal, enter our villains in this real life morality play – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Horowitz did not find evidence Obama asked for probe of Trump Live coverage: DOJ inspector general testifies on Capitol Hill MORE (R-Iowa), who has displayed the wisdom of Solomon and a stick-to-itiveness to the need for sentencing reform that we should all admire, provides a nice foil.

Let’s all hope the common sense that is the will of the citizenry wins out and delivers the United States a great lame duck 2018 session victory!

John Wetzel is the chair of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Follow him on Twitter @DOCSecretary and @johnewetzel.