Even as a boy growing up in Salina, Kan., David Adkins loved politics. His parents and grandparents were Republicans, and his mother was a devoted campaign worker who once shuttled a famous former senator around town in the family’s station wagon.
“Bob Dole was a hero of mine, he was this larger-than-life figure that was funny and engaging,” says Adkins. “He came to my 6th grade class and I remember the day very well.”
Dole would later advise Adkins on his own political career through the Kansas House of Representatives and Senate. When Dole launched his bid for the presidency in Topeka in 1996, Adkins was there to introduce him.
But the politics of Dole’s generation, where a lawmaker could be fiercely partisan yet still willing to work for compromise, has been replaced by something more acrimonious, dogmatic, and entrenched. Adkins says he went into politics with a pragmatic point of view, thinking opponents could debate the issues but never consider the other side the enemy. It’s what helped him push through a sweeping overhaul of the Kansas juvenile justice system with near unanimous bipartisan support.
“Politics is ultimately a people sport, it’s about seeing the humanity in other people and although we can have disagreements, we don’t need to be disagreeable,” he says. “On many issues today, people simply can’t agree on what the facts are, and that makes it very difficult to reach a consensus.”
Adkins left elective office in 2005, and three years later became the executive director and CEO of the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan organization based in Lexington that helps state officials in all three branches of government shape public policy.
“We are an organization of the states themselves. They pay dues to support us, and as such they understand we work for them,” says Adkins. “It really gave me the opportunity to do the things I loved about the legislature, which was really dig deep into public policy and try to solve problems.”
Collecting Information to Help Lawmakers Craft Policy Reforms
CSG works in a number of policy areas, including education and workforce, health and human services, fiscal issues, and elections. Rather than advocating for specific legislation, Adkins says his organization collects data that helps lawmakers make decisions that are best for their particular state.
“The worst thing you can be in politics is to think that you’re the smartest person in the room, and secondly, for us, to enter a state and say this is what you all should do,” he says. “They can smell that a mile away and they’ll shut you down if you’re trying to make your agenda their agenda. What we do is we listen to them, and try to develop from that a path forward that they see as their own consensus.”
Sometimes that means analyzing data that lawmakers are reluctant to collect because it may make someone look bad, or it may support a policy solution that would be unpopular.
“To have that kind of data, it empowers decision making that is so much more robust and effective than just trying to rely on anecdotal evidence,” says Adkins.
For example, CSG conducted a massive review of school discipline data for 2014 report about how to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system. The study found that a disproportionate percentage of students disciplined for misconduct were youth of color, had disabilities, or identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. When students are suspended or expelled, according to the report, they are at significantly greater risk of falling behind academically and ending up in the juvenile justice system.
“So when you start looking at what are the roots of this disproportionate confinement or engagement with the juvenile justice system, often it starts by essentially criminalizing behavior in school by having resource officers there that are writing tickets instead of counselors who are trying to adjudicate some sort of restorative situation,” Adkins says.
In looking at the broader issue of criminal justice reform, Adkins says CSG reviews state data to find the best options for community-based initiatives and reentry programs that protect public safety without having to build more prisons.
“Someone coming out of prison, if they can have a job, if they can have a photo ID, if they can have a place to stay, we know that their chance of being successful is much greater,” he says.
Instead of spending $100,000 a year to house a single prisoner, Adkins says states can spend their money in ways that have significant impact while still holding people accountable. That may mean removing barriers to reentry or investing in specialized drug courts and mental health courts that get people the help they need rather than criminalizing their behaviors. It may also mean looking at even broader social issues.
“What we’ve found is to be successful in the criminal justice space as policymakers, you have to think about issues like housing, you have to think about issues that are deeply engrained in racial equity, having employment,” says Adkins.
A big challenge for lawmakers interested in pursuing such reforms is the risk of being attacked in the next election cycle as being “soft on crime.” Adkins says CSG tries to alleviate those concerns by bringing conservative and progressive legislators together to craft policies based solid research. For example, when a Democratic state lawmaker in Connecticut encountered stiff opposition from conservatives to a criminal justice reform plan, Adkins says CSG found a Republican sheriff from Mississippi who testified on behalf of the proposal and assuaged fears the opposition had.
“What we try to do is provide policymakers who want to be effective with the political cover of having data and consensus to pursue smart criminal justice policies,” he says.
Public Service in an Age of Political Polarization
Election integrity is another focus for CSG. Adkins says despite allegations by former President Donald Trump and his allies, Americans can have “great trust” in their elections.
“The facts are that local and state elections are incredibly sound and accurate,” he says. “With very few exceptions, the level of fraud in the vote is minuscule.”
But at the same time, Adkins says he worries that the allegations and conspiracy theories meant to undermine public trust in the electoral process will also delegitimize the core institutions of civic life and a functioning government. He also worries about the threats being made against secretaries of state, local election officials, and poll workers.
“These are people on the front lines, these are people who through their daily life are the most eloquent expression of what it means to be a patriot and we should all come to their aid,” says Adkins.
Amid political polarization, culture wars, and isolation driven by social media, Adkins says it’s critical for public servants to foster a greater sense of community around issues that too often divide politicians and voters. He contends the extremes in both parties have lost sight of what it means to govern from the center, and that some politicians are more interested in serving their own ambitions than the common good.
“When I look at the sacrifices people who are serving today have to make, and the vitriol that they are forced to deal with through social media,” says Adkins, “it’s incredible that we still have great people that want to serve.”