It’s not every day that a world-famous celebrity shows up at the city council meeting for a town of fewer than 4,000 people.
That’s exactly what comedian Dave Chappelle did earlier this week, attending the city council meeting in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he lives.
“In this Trump era, here’s an opportunity to show everybody that local politics reigns supreme,” Chappelle said. “We can make our corner of the world outstanding.”
The meeting was about finding a new police chief for the small town. The previous police chief resigned early this year after a tense altercation on New Year’s Day between police and civilians. That night, police tried to break up celebrations mere minutes after midnight, at one point trying to chase down and use a Taser on a black man. In the small, politically liberal town, the event was enough to spark a local scandal — leading to the resignation of the police chief and a search for a replacement. (The New York Times wrote up the incident in much greater detail.)
Chappelle argued that the town should look for “a candidate that matches the culture of this town, which is incredibly unique” — seemingly a reference to the town’s rather liberal nature in the middle of an area of Ohio that is known to be fairly conservative.
The whole thing may come off as a stunt for a celebrity, but Chappelle is doing exactly the kind of thing that can lead to meaningful criminal justice reform. He’s right that local politics reign supreme, especially on these issues. And in the era of Donald Trump, it is well within the power of local and state jurisdictions — if constituents push them to — to make reforms even if Trump, who’s “tough on crime,” doesn’t want to.
Local and state governments are the bulk of the criminal justice system
Almost all police work in America is done at the local and state level. There are nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the US, and only a dozen or so are federal agencies. Much of what these local and state agencies do is guided by rules and regulations set locally and enforcing laws and following standards that are almost entirely set at the state level.
Similarly, the prosecutors who actually take people to court tend to be local, often elected through county elections. These local prosecutors are key drivers of mass incarceration, often deciding unilaterally just how harshly the law will be enforced. A study by criminologist John Pfaff, for example, suggested that prosecutors essentially drove mass incarceration through the 1990s and 2000s: Because prosecutors filed more charges even as the total number of arrests by police dropped, they managed to get more people in prison and jail.
And the judges who manage the courts are also mostly local or state-based, sometimes elected through local and statewide elections as well.
Consider incarceration, a big target of reform efforts. In the US, federal prisons house only about 13 percent of the overall prison population. That is, to be sure, a significant number in such a big system. But it’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things, as this chart from the Prison Policy Initiative shows:
One way to think about this is what would happen if President Trump used his pardon powers to their maximum potential — meaning he pardoned every single person in federal prison right now. That would push down America’s overall incarcerated population from about 2.2 million to 2 million.
That would be a hefty reduction. But it also wouldn't undo mass incarceration, as the US would still lead all but one country in incarceration — with an incarceration rate of about 629 per 100,000 people, only the tiny island country of Seychelles would come ahead.
And while the federal government can incentivize states to adopt specific criminal justice policies, studies show that previous efforts — such as the 1994 federal crime law — had little to no impact. By and large, it seems states will only embrace federal incentives on criminal justice issues if they actually want to adopt the policies being encouraged.
So to really pull back mass incarceration, states will need to make changes. (And that will likely involve more than reforming drug laws: About 53 percent of state prisoners are in for violent crimes, and just 16 percent are in for drug offenses.)
The tasks of ending mass incarceration and reforming the police, then, are going to fall almost wholly to cities and states. And there’s evidence that cities and states want to continue doing that work: Even some of the counties and states that voted for Trump supported ballot initiatives that shortened prison sentences and prosecutors who took softer views on crime, conservative organizations like the partially Koch-funded Right on Crime have continued to push for reform, and Republican governors such as Georgia’s Nathan Deal and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin have trumpeted reform efforts.
Chappelle’s approach, then, is exactly how people can get reform done even as the White House is controlled by a man who has no interest in such work. But it will require everyone — not just a lone celebrity here and there — to vote, attend city council meetings, and otherwise make it clear to local and state lawmakers that they want change to come.