Landmark prison reforms in the Trump administration’s recently enacted First Step Act would have been roundly rejected by conservative politicians had they been pushed by the country’s first black president, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) admitted on Saturday.
“President Obama couldn’t have done it,” Bryant said during a criminal justice reform panel discussion at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C.
“Because quite honestly, a lot of us probably would’ve screamed and hollered, ‘Oh, oh my goodness, he’s gonna turn ‘em all out on our communities, and there’s gonna be pillaging and crime, and — there they go again’.”
Bryant’s blunt critique of his own party’s reflexive and implicit biases is a view shared widely, if quietly, by activists who worked on the bill.
Although the prison reform movement ultimately split on the historic federal legislation after some activists condemned its final language as too modest, people on each side of the schism have said much the same thing that the Mississippi governor did on Saturday.
The bill erects a clear path to exit prison early, allowing inmates to be transferred to electronic monitoring and halfway-house systems in their homes and communities for the latter years of their sentences. The reforms also extend retroactive re-sentencing for approximately 3,000 people who were left out of past efforts to shrink a race discrepancy in mandatory minimum sentencing for crack and powder cocaine.
Lawmakers and voters who reacted to Obama with reflexive paranoia now open their minds to reform under President Donald Trump, who has a long record of appealing to racist groups and of making racist statements himself.
Bryant’s observation is so commonly understood among politicians and activists who’ve worked on these issues that no one who shared the stage with the governor batted an eye at his remark.
A murmur that went through the convention audience – which was smaller than it had been for the preceding panel on how technology is altering jobs markets and policies — had a tone of churchly affirmation rather than one of indignation or surprise.
The governor’s blunt acknowledgment of the racist psychological underpinnings of the country should be striking, considering the source.
It would have been one thing for a black activist or a member of Twitter’s progressive commentariat to point out the irony. But Bryant is one of the key Republican figures of the slow-but-steady bipartisan push to replace “tough on crime” thinking with more rational and humane ideas about justice.
The public rhetoric of the former prosecutor-turned-governor has long mirrored some of the most extreme voices on the far-right on reproductive autonomy, economic policy, and other fault-line issues of U.S. civic life. Those positions make him trustworthy to his fellow Republicans, many of whom he says have sought his guidance on criminal justice policies when they get cold feet about reform.
Saturday’s remarks show that the criminal justice reform movement’s co-pilot for the political right is fully aware that voters and public officials harbor deep implicit biases as they participate in this work.
Bryant – who has also used his power to impose radical restrictions on abortion and more than once has been accused of intentionally playing off the same voter biases he described at the panel discussion – did not use the language of intersectional social justice while laying out how he came to occupy such a vital political crossroads for the movement against mass incarceration.
Yet, however much folksy Christian-right sermonizing spin he put on it, the concepts and observations and convictions Bryant professed to the room reflected ideas that longtime progressive activists would recognize from the entry-level conceptual curriculum they’ve worked from for generations.
“I put a lot of people in jail. And I found out doing that that they have families, and they have mothers, and they have children. And so there is a world they live in that sometimes we could not comprehend,” he said at one point.
“There are people that need to be in prison, and then there’s people we’re just mad at. If they go do something wrong, maybe they’re taking drugs and they get trapped in that cycle of addiction, they break into your car, you’re mad at em!” he said at another. “Do they need to be in jail for 20 years? No.”
While white conservative leaders like the Mississippi governor may have been able to crack the door open for positive change on how the U.S. handles its incarcerated citizens, prison reform and societal re-entry issues are easier parts of the broader criminal justice puzzle to solve.
Meanwhile, racial divides in public opinion remain stark and conservative allies scarce, on questions of police reform, systemic racism in street-level law enforcement activity, and the scientifically established but politically toxic reality that standards for training and job performance in policing teach individual officers to fear black bodies.
Saturday’s panel did not touch directly upon those more intractable issues, or the ongoing tensions over police accountability reflected in and enhanced by a deep-rooted structural slant toward protecting officers who kill, assault, or humiliate the citizens who they were trained to fear.