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Why criminal justice reform isn't dead yet

Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

Is criminal justice reform a dead man walking?

That's the impression you would get from perusing recent punditry on the subject. Michael Grunwald sees Donald Trump "killing" justice reform; others see it "breaking down before our eyes," or proclaim it "never really had a chance."

The fear is that Trump's bombast, mixed with backlash to Black Lives Matter and hysteria over a spike in homicides in some cities, could set back efforts in Congress to pass major federal sentencing reform this year. Staffers are still hammering out details on compromise legislation. But justice reform was never going to be as easy as the euphoric reports about Van Jones joining hands with Newt Gingrich made it seem in the spring.

The roller coaster reviews of bipartisanship on crime miss an important point — the cooperation here is transpartisan, in that both sides have gotten to reform by reasoning from their own first principles. There is no mushy centrism at work here. Conservative reformers came to the cause in their own way, and on their own principles. That means conservative reformers will also have the staying power to survive a bad summer of murders or a boorish campaign season.

Steven Teles and I explained the deeply rooted origins of the conservative reform movement in a new report. In brief, the movement is rooted in a coalition among evangelicals who minister to inmates and libertarians who have come to see mass incarceration as just another example of government overreach. That coalition has registered some impressive successes in bright red states, most notably Texas, in recent years, and people involved in reform are optimistic that there is an appetite for more.

As Max Ehrenfreund notes, it's true that conservatives have not yet proven willing to take on the problem of excessive sentences for violent offenders, but there are some hopeful indicators in that regard — not least the conservative embrace of data-driven policymaking on prisons.

For a while, there were even signs that the progress on sentencing reform could spill over into policing. Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott and Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner this summer unveiled comprehensive crime legislation that would cover both issues. Further movement in that direction has become much less likely after a summer of red-meat rhetoric. That's sad because, as Reihan Salam noted, inner-city communities still suffer far too much violent crime, and remain underpoliced in the ways that matter most.

There is no guarantee that the strange bedfellows of alliances sustaining sentencing reform will last, or succeed in making the far-reaching cuts to incarceration that liberals are hoping for. But it's worth cultivating the emerging movement. The dangerous poles here are not left and right, but euphoria and despair.

David Dagan is a PhD candidate in political science at Johns Hopkins University and co-author, with Steven Teles, of the forthcoming Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration. Find him @daviddagan.