Last night I watched the latest episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, in which he did a deep dive on bail reform and the massive right-wing outcry against it. As always, Oliver presented a cogent, well-researched, and even entertaining video essay on the topic, and it’s worth watching if you haven’t already.
The alarmist pushback on bail reform initiatives have been alternately frustrating and infuriating. It’s something I have seen in my own semi-rural community near NYC: When people talk about the rise in crime, someone almost always blames the state’s recent bail reform, despite abundant evidence that New York’s bail reform did not increase crime at all.
In large part this is because of the NYPD. Police are, after all lying liars who only tell lies. Since New York State passed bail reform measures, the police have done nothing but talk about how it increased crime. As we know, this proves it did no such thing, because police only lie, and if a police officer says something is true then we know it is false. Unfortunately, too few people acknowledge the First Law of Policing.
But what I got thinking about during Oliver’s segment was how we could win broader public support by reframing the way we talk about the issue. Reformers talk a lot about the injustice of the cash bail system, and how it violates the rights of those accused of crimes. That is the way Oliver frames his own argument in favor of bail reform measures. But this, unfortunately, only appeals to the segment of our population who care about the rights of people accused of crime — a segment that is, unfortunately, often drowned out by those who equate accusation with conviction, and conviction with dehumanization.
I can’t help wondering if we could take a lesson from the Inflation Reduction Act and reframe progressive reforms so they appeal to people who don’t necessarily share progressive values.
We’re never going to win the support of the hardcore “lock-em-all-up” conservatives, who only care about the rights of accused people when those accused people are white January 6 rioters. But there’s a huge portion of the public that is neither far right nor progressive, and those people tend to fall for right-wing talking points because right-wing talking points are rooted in base emotions like fear and hatred, and easy to sum up.
Just look at the segment. It takes John Oliver nearly 30 minutes to explain why bail reform is a good thing, why the rights of the accused matter, and why it doesn’t actually increase crime, despite what the police say. The other side only needs three seconds to say “Letting criminals out of jail will lead to more crime.”
This is often the challenge with progressive policies. People need a lengthy education on the facts and principles before they can see the argument. So I tend to look for simpler, shorter arguments that meet people where they are — so we don’t need a half hour PowerPoint presentation to win them over.
In this case, I focused my attention on this chart, from Vox Media, that shows the growth of populations in local jails since 1983. In only the last 20 years, the number of people in local jails has doubled — not because more people were convicted, but because the government started keeping more “Non-convicted” people in jail pre-trial.
It’s worth noting that we have a word for “Non-convicted” people here in the United States. We usually just call them innocent. That’s what you are, in the United States, until you are proven guilty: Innocent.
So we can talk about the rights of the accused, and how devastating it is to be incarcerated for even a short time, and how unjust it is to be incarcerating people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Or we could say the government is wasting millions of tax dollars holding innocent people in jail for years.
People don’t need a long education to understand government waste. They already believe the government is wasteful, and most people believe their taxes are too high. Politicians are constantly talking about how we can cut taxes by making the government more “efficient.”
So maybe instead of talking about “Bail Reform,” we should be telling people we are “Reducing wasteful government spending.”
No, it’s not going to suddenly make hardcore Republicans turn around and support these reforms. But it might make a big enough difference with those folks in the middle, the ones who don’t have 30 minutes for John Oliver’s educational video essay.