The Prisoner Dilemma

Ending America’s Incarceration Epidemic

Inmates in a class at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York April, 2016. CARLO ALLEGRI / REUTERS

During the past decade, a time of intense political polarization in the United States, criminal justice reform has emerged as an unlikely unifier. Democrats and Republicans have reached across the aisle, compelled by a shared recognition that flawed legal codes and sentencing laws (among other features of the criminal justice system) have destroyed lives, drained billions of taxpayer dollars, and failed to provide Americans with the public safety they deserve. This broad agreement led to the introduction, in 2015 and 2016, of bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress that would have produced comprehensive reform at the federal level—including changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which have contributed to the explosion in U.S. incarceration rates by reducing judges’ discretion in sentencing. Supporters of the legislation represented an extraordinarily wide ideological spectrum: from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and the billionaire donor Charles Koch on the right to President Barack Obama, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations on the left. 

But last September, the bill, which had seemed certain to pass in the Senate, died without ever reaching the floor after opposition from a handful of high-profile GOP senators apparently convinced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky not to bring it up for a vote. “I think that Senator McConnell understandably did not want to tee up an issue that split our caucus right before the 2016 election,” remarked Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the bill’s most vocal proponents, in an interview with The New York Times.

Of course, 2016 was no ordinary election year. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump, the eventual GOP nominee, painted a grim portrait of the United States. “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse,” he tweeted in July. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he pledged in his acceptance speech at the

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