Focus is needed on involvement of local municipal and county officials, as well as local system reform advocates, to press in coalition for reforms that will actually reduce the “local concentrations” of mass incarceration that prevail in the communities to which they are politically accountable. Because local justice reinvestment coalitions are accountable to local constituents, they would not just add to the demand for state legislative reforms, but they would be in a position to share the political risks entailed in legislating sentencing reforms and other difficult-to-attain legislation. And local officials have the authority to implement local policy changes that could result in major reductions in statewide correctional populations.
We know from experience that success is possible:
Major reform has taken place in New York, where decades of advocacy and activism in New York City aimed to reform the state’s drug laws, reduce drug enforcement efforts by police and prosecutors, and shift city drug policies away from law enforcement and toward a public health response. Advocacy for change was intensified through broad-based drug reform campaigns coordinated by two New York City (NYC)-based advocacy campaigns: “Drop the Rock” and “Real Reform.” In 1998, felony drug arrests in NYC had hit a high of 45,978. The campaigns against the Rockefeller Drug Laws helped to foster a major shift in public opinion about drug enforcement. In 1999, a widely-publicized poll of New York State (NYS) voters conducted by pollsters at Zogby International revealed that twice as many said they would be more inclined to vote for state legislators who would reduce sentences and give judges greater discretion in drug cases than the number who said they’d be less inclined to support them. That same year, New York Police Department enforcement priorities shifted, and felony drug arrests began a sharp decline. By 2011, the number had plummeted to 21,149, and felony drug filings had also declined. Accordingly, prison sentences for felony drug offenses meted out by NYC judges fell from 8,614 in 1998 to 2,224 in 2011. And between 1999 and 2012, the NYS prison population fell by nearly 25%. The steep decline in felony drug arrests in NYC contributed greatly to a decade-long decline in the NYS prison population, and finally—in 2009—state lawmakers voted to reform the harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws.