Being Realistic About Reducing Incarceration: Political Approaches to Incarceration Reform in Michigan, What Works, and What Does Not



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Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness took the criminal justice space by storm. Published in 2010 just as states began reversing War on Drugs policies, the book transformed the way activists and policymakers think about prison and the state’s role in incarceration. The book’s core premise posited that incarceration’s purpose is to systematically and intentionally disenfranchise African American men. My research challenges the dominance of Alexander’s narrative on the carceral system and aims to answer the question: what is the most effective political approach to getting criminal justice reform policy passed that significantly reduces the incarcerated population given existing political conditions in Michigan and other states with similar conditions? My research draws on interviews with state policymakers and activists, political messaging in newspaper articles, press releases, and legislative hearings, and successful and unsuccessful legislation passed in Michigan’s 100th and 101st state legislative sessions to create a comprehensive analysis of when and where certain political approaches succeed and fail. I argue that Alexander’s “race approach” is not the most effective political approach to reducing incarceration on a messaging or policy basis. I argue instead for the success of the “economic approach” in passing reform legislation. This economic approach aims to ameliorate the effects of the carceral system, both by making it easier for offenders to access socioeconomic resources after incarceration and through preventative but piecemeal measures before incarceration, such as increasing funding for an individual program or resource. I argue that while the economic approach has achieved the most success from a messaging and policy standpoint thus far, mass redistribution into working- and middle-class communities is needed to truly shrink the carceral state. This thesis categorizes and measures different political approaches to carceral reform, which previous scholars have not done, and creates a political framework for how legislators in purple states can get reform legislation passed.



incarceration, race, class, political messaging, reform, incarceration reform, crime, black lives matter, prison, activism, state policymakers, policymakers, Michigan, purple state, political approach