Political ideology and populism are often thought to be major impediments to criminal justice reform. Our research has attempted to deconstruct these ideas so that the robustness of the ‘punitive turn’ in criminal justice policy can be better understood. This article reports upon in-depth interviews conducted with five very senior criminal justice policy-makers, each of whom was broadly sympathetic to reforming criminal justice policy to achieve the goal of lower incarceration levels. The interviews reveal that these policy-makers conceived of prison reform primarily in terms of political risk, especially when reform was related to the adoption of prison alternatives and models that focus on ‘decarceration’. Furthermore, policymakers’ perceptions of political risk were intricately bound up with concerns about potential public policy and program failure. This research indicates the need to develop political will for reform, alongside the further development of the myriad evaluation and policy development processes required to enable successful reform in the criminal justice space.