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A few thoughts on legislative compromises

We've had to make tough compromises in our work to protect in-person jail visits. We share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes of supporting other advocates.

by Bernadette Rabuy, November 20, 2017

Policy work sometimes requires tough choices. For example, our campaign to protect in-person family visits in jails has won some major victories at the price of accepting legislation that does not apply to counties that had already replaced in-person visits with inadequate video calls.

In both Texas and California, state bills were successful in protecting in-person visits in a majority of counties but exempted some counties from restoring in-person visits. (This practice of creating an exemption in a law is sometimes called a “grandfather clause” or “grandfathering.”) Our coalitions struggled with these compromises, and I want to share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes that it might guide similar decisions:

  1. What is the main goal of the legislation?

    At the Prison Policy Initiative, we often work in coalitions. One challenge of working in coalitions is that it can be hard to make fast-paced decisions. Planning ahead, creating a structure, and agreeing in advance on the purpose of the legislation can make all the difference. In California, we used a few approaches. We had regular conversations among the coalition members about the purpose of the legislation. This was almost like creating a ranking of the most important purposes of the legislation to the least important purposes. We also elected a smaller group of the coalition that was entrusted to make fast-paced decisions if getting in touch with all of the coalition members didn’t work out. Another approach, which is similar to what we did in Texas, is to alert coalition members to be on stand-by for a last-minute conference call as soon as there is reason to believe that a fast-paced decision is likely.

  2. Is the compromise the right size?

    Passing legislation often requires compromise, so the first question, after whether compromise is necessary, is whether it’s the right one. For example, we’ve found it helpful to focus on the extent of that compromise. We’ve thought about whether the compromise is limited to what’s necessary or, on the other hand, takes the teeth out of a bill. For example, for legislation on video calls, we ask ourselves, if a grandfather clause is necessary, how many counties exactly does it make sense to include? Unfortunately, the California bill has an expansive grandfather clause. It not only exempts jails that were built without physical space designated for in-person visitation, but it also exempts jails that are in early stages of construction.

  3. Can we effectively address, at the local level, what the state legislative compromise left out?

    When we considered the expansive California exemption, we thought about the feasibility of follow-up campaigns in the counties that would be exempted. In other words, we asked, “Can we fix it later?”

    When working with a coalition, it can be helpful to poll members’ capacity to do follow-up work. For example, is the campaign a part of that coalition member’s one-year plan or five-year plan? If most of the coalition is located in a couple of cities, would it be practical to launch a campaign outside of those cities? How difficult would it be to track local policymaking? (For example, are county government meeting agendas posted online regularly and in advance?)

  4. How likely is future reform? Is there opposition and how strong or widespread is it?

    We’ve also assessed the political climate. For example, when we were working to protect in-person visits in Texas, it didn’t seem like the opposition would waver if we decided to reject the offered compromise and waited for the next legislative session. In particular, Bexar County was resistant to the bill we were working on because it was building a visitation center in order to replace in-person visits with video calls. Bexar County wasn’t showing any sign of rethinking its plans, and, as home to San Antonio, it seemed to be an influential county.

    On the other hand, the initial California bill that would have protected in-person visits in California jails had a long list of supporters and just one opponent (the California State Sheriffs Association). While the Legislature approved the bill with bipartisan support, Governor Brown ultimately vetoed the bill. With just one opponent (and one who conceded that “in-person visitation can bring positive outcomes”), we knew we had momentum to keep the campaign going. We also thought we might have more success at a later moment that wasn’t so close to an election heavy with criminal justice reforms. Ultimately, we were right; we were successful with a second bill.

  5. Are there alternative strategies for reform?

    We’ve weighed the potential harm of an exemption with the likelihood that we could adopt alternative strategies for reform. For example, in Texas, some of the counties that had already banned in-person visits were still subject to the law’s requirement to provide in-person visits because they had not in fact incurred “significant expense” to adopt video calls. We knew from our research that it was common for predatory video call companies to install video call systems in jails at no cost to the county. Upon closer investigation, Woods and Hays hadn’t paid for their video systems so they were required to provide in-person jail visits. In Travis County, advocates like Grassroots Leadership, which is based in the County, organized and successfully persuaded the Travis County Sheriff to bring back in-person visits even though he received an exemption.

    In California, the coalition that sponsored the initial bill responded to the Governor’s veto by partnering with supportive legislators and family members of incarcerated people. The Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary along with the Senate Public Safety Committee hosted an informational hearing on video calls at the State Capitol where members of our coalition testified to raise further awareness of the harm of banning in-person visits. We also organized family members of incarcerated people to share the positive impact that in-person visitation has had on them through public comment or written testimony. As one man who has visited his father in various California jails put it, “Human beings need in person visits. Our minds need it and our hearts need it.” The support of legislators and the public helped us keep our campaign in the spotlight until we were able to protect in-person visits through a second bill.

Legislative compromises are never easy questions. Without a doubt, legislative compromises require assessing factors that vary from one place to another. But our experience working to protect in-person visits in certain states has reminded us that anticipating opposition and brainstorming potential responses in advance can make the decision easier.

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