Georgia Republicans are pushing dozens of ‘election integrity’ bills. Black voters are the target, rights groups say.” “Texas Has Officially Banned Most Abortions.” These are familiar headlines from national news publications about recent action taken by conservative state legislators. National coverage of state politics often focuses on the most controversial and partisan laws, like an abortion bill in Texas, voting restrictions in Georgia or a transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina. After all, state lawmakers are partisans, and red states focus more on conservative laws and blue states on liberal laws. Yet what national media often overlooks is that underneath the partisanship, state capitals have a significant tradition of bi-partisan and nonpartisan accomplishments. This isn’t to say that politics and party don’t matter in state legislatures; but contrary to common public belief, there are moments of bipartisan action in which state lawmakers come together to push their states forward, which happens more frequently than in Congress. Progressives who are frustrated by Republican dominance of state government should be heartened that some conservative states are willing to work toward progressive goals, albeit to a limited extent. This trend of bi-partisanship is visible in many ways over the last several years, but it is perhaps most apparent in criminal justice reform, especially in Texas and Louisiana. 

Over the last decade, there has been a growing bipartisan consensus that our nation’s prison laws are too punitive and inequitable to poor, Black, and Latino Americans. In Europe in 2019, there were 112 individuals in prison for every 100,000 citizens. In striking contrast, in Massachusetts, America’s least incarceral state in 2019, there were 133 individuals in prison per 100,000. In Louisiana, the number was much higher, at 688 individuals per 100,000. The difference in these rates is predictable, as Louisiana is a deep-red state and Massachusetts is dark blue. In a ranking of the incarceration rates by state, the majority of the states at the top of the list are conservative, and most at the bottom are liberal. Yet Virginia and Delaware are in the top half, and Utah, Alaska, and North Dakota are all in the bottom 12, indicating that politics is not the only factor that determines a state’s incarceration rate. Because of the growing bipartisan consensus that American mass incarceration is a failing policy, dozens of states, including deep-red ones, have started down the path of reform.

Texas, the quintessential conservative state, was the sixth-most punitive state in 2019, locking up 529 individuals per 100,000. Yet, in the past ten years, Texas has enacted significant criminal justice reforms, saving the state two billion dollars and dropping crime rates by 29 percent. In 2007, Governor Rick Perry, who was later a member of Trump’s cabinet, put together a bipartisan working group to find ways to reduce incarceration. In part, like many fiscally conservative politicians, Perry thought that incarcerating so many people was too expensive and wanted to find ways to cut spending on building new jails. Although his motivation for reform was different from many progressives, both sides worked towards a common end result. 

The 2007 reforms included diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from prison construction toward substance abuse and mental health assistance, as well as programs to work with individuals at risk of incarceration. Since then, parole revocations to prison dropped by 25 percent and Texas’ parole board increased their rate of release by about 20 percent. Texas also reduced the length of non-violent sentences, increased drug rehabilitation programs, gave more discretion to judges when sentencing nonviolent offenders, and reduced probation sentences. The Lone Star State has also closed ten prisons since 2007. In 2019, Texas Governor Greg Abbot signed legislation with multiple provisions to protect pregnant, incarcerated women—in stark contrast to the 2021 extreme abortion ban bill which he also signed.

Still, there are limits to how far a conservative state will go, even to save money. Twelve years after their major reforms, Texas is still the sixth most putative state in the country, and, in 2021, Abbot vetoed several criminal justice bills, including one that would have expanded parole eligibility for individuals who committed crimes before they were 18. Additionally, racial disparities in Texas prisons are still horrible; in 2017, Black individuals made up 13 percent of the state’s population but comprised 33 percent of the prison population. Texas is a good example of how conservative motivation to reduce government spending can lead to bi-partisan action that liberals agree with, but still comes up far short of what many progressives would like to see enacted to put the U.S. more in line with other wealthy democracies and eliminate racial disparities. Texas appears to have little hope of reaching that far while still under conservative governance. 

Even deep-red Louisiana enacted comprehensive reforms in 2017, which are expected to cut its prison population by 10 percent. Similar to Texas, the Louisiana laws focused on reducing prison time for non-violent, low-level offenders and removed barriers for incarcerated individuals re-entering society. As with Texas conservatives, they focused on saving hundreds of millions of dollars with these proposals. Although Louisiana was governed in 2017 by a moderate Democrat governor, the state house and senate were led by Republicans, and all of the ten enacted criminal justice reforms had strong bi-partisan support. Still, in 2019, Louisiana still was the most incarceral state in the country,  more than five times the rate of Europe, and racial disparities were still high.

In contrast, California, the nation’s biggest blue state, has worked more aggressively and progressively on criminal justice reform, producing quicker and more widespread results. Beginning 12 years ago in 2009, the Golden State began passing reforms that included more opportunities for early release for nonviolent offenders, allowing elderly incarcerated individuals to access parole earlier, reducing prison sentences and disparities for drug-related charges, reducing penalties for youth who committed crimes, and allowing medically vulnerable prisoners to be released earlier, among other progressive reforms. In under ten years, by 2018, California reduced its prison population by 25 percent, a much higher reduction than in any conservative state—even though the Golden State already began with lower levels of incarceration. Progressive lawmakers in California also focused on reducing racial disparities and investing in communities to prevent crime, and are continuing to do so through 2021.

Analyzing criminal justice reforms through the lens of these three states shows the potential and limits of bi-partisanship to achieving progressive policy goals. Conservatives in Texas and Louisiana have been willing to pass modest reforms which have reduced prison populations, although not by as much as California. For those who hope to see a less punitive America, these bi-partisan collaborations show that progressives should, when necessary, work with conservative legislators to push for results they both hope to achieve, even if their motives don’t align and even if progressives wish to go much further. Then, once these efforts have been exhausted, progressives must work to elect more liberal lawmakers in order to more fully decarcerate America and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Beyond solely the criminal justice system, collaborative, bi-partisan state policy has potential to make significant improvements to the law, which is a possibility that even those on the far left should not ignore.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *