Finding Common Ground on Incarceration

For years, reformers have focused on two problems with the United States’ approach to incarceration: First, an unusually large number of Americans are in incarcerated compared with other nations2. Second, reformers charge that our criminal justice system is too often unfair and inequitable.3

Incarceration reform is unusual in today’s politics in showing signs of nascent bipartisan congressional action.4 But given the depths of congressional dysfunction and gridlock, and with a high-stakes election looming, that bipartisanship seems more likely to wither on the vine than bear fruit unless strong public pressure helps push progress along. Whatever happens with Congress and federal policy, there exist real opportunities today to see renewed attention and action on incarceration at the state level. That’s why we’ve chosen incarceration as our inaugural issue to explore under the Hidden Common Ground banner.

When people from different walks of life sit down and talk about criminality and incarceration, how do they process the problem and think about solutions? Our approach to exploring the public’s views on the topic began with a review of existing survey data and proceeded to three focus groups in diverse locations with ordinary Americans, with roughly equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.5 This report concludes with implications and reflections on the solutions that are most and least likely to garner public support and with ideas for productively engaging the public on the topic of incarceration.