It has actually helped pave the way for significant criminal justice reform.
A defining feature of the Obama era—or at least one of them—is polarization.
Voters, and especially activists, are more uncompromising than they’ve ever been. This isn’t a bad thing. Activist intensity—backed by public interest—can force action and make parties more responsive to their voters. Intensity, for example, is one reason President Obama made his executive move on immigration, and it’s one reason Republicans are trying to push back with condemnation and countermeasures. Likewise, intensity is what pushed Democrats to pass health care reform despite the huge political costs, and it’s why—nearly five years later—Republicans are still trying to repeal the law and its benefits.
But, for as much as intensity contributes to politics, we shouldn’t give short shrift to its sibling: public apathy. Apathy gets a bad rap, but when you look at its full place in the world of public policy, it’s underrated.
To be clear, apathy’s reputation isn’t undeserved. Politicians have long used voter disinterest as cover for corrupt behavior. And on issues toward which voters aren’t attentive—but interest groups are—the public can get shafted. But the same shadows that cloak the worst of our lawmakers can also shield the best of them. On issues with which the problems are severe and about which voters are indifferent, politicians have a chance to act effectively for the public good without watching their rears.
The best example is criminal justice reform. During the last decade, lawmakers across the country have pushed bold experiments in shrinking prisons and reducing incarcerated populations, unscathed by any kind of public backlash. In 2010, after two decades of ceaseless prison growth, Texas officials—supported by Gov. Rick Perry—moved to counter increasing costs of prison construction and incarceration with a new regime of treatment and mental health programs to give prosecutors and judges a third option besides jail or parole. It worked. The Texas inmate population has dropped from its peak of 173,000 in 2010 to 168,000 in 2013, without any increase in violent or property crime. Recidivism is down, and the state has saved an estimated $3 billion.