“Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration.” That’s the subtitle of a new book, Prison Break, and a related panel last week at the American Enterprise Institute. The first word speaks volumes: the issue isn’t “whether” but rather “why” the right joined the justice-reform movement.
“Today’s conservative positions could not be more different” from those of the 1980s and 1990s, reiterated Steven M. Teles, a coauthor of the book, during the event. A flyer even referred to the “conservative-led prison reform movement.”
There’s some truth to these claims. Over the past decade, conservative intellectuals have put together a compelling case for reducing incarceration, and they have had some success promoting their agenda to red-state governments. But contrary to the popular narrative, their arguments have not yet won the day with everyday conservatives or even with many legislators. In fact, measured by opinion polls and changes in state imprisonment rates, liberals are still decisively leading on this issue.
Certainly there are good reasons to roll back our most punitive policies. As conservative reformers note, the U.S. imprisonment rate has grown dramatically since the late 1970s—a trend that began as an understandable and effective reaction to high crime but that continued past the point of diminishing returns.
These reformers eschew the throw-open-the-prison-gates mentality of some on the left. “You have to realize that the crime problem was real—and still is real in many regards—and it’s completely irresponsible to talk about this issue without talking about the crime problem,” said Vikrant P. Reddy of the Charles Koch Institute, one of the leading conservative reformers (and a TAC contributor) at the AEI event. Instead, Reddy and his allies champion a suite of cautious, moderate reforms, and they root their arguments in conservative principles such as a distrust of government power, a desire to reduce spending, and sometimes a religious belief in redemption.
This phenomenon—prominent conservatives taking up what was long seen as a liberal cause—yields the heartwarming story of a “bipartisan consensus” we can celebrate and whose “why” we can explore. Pointing to significant reforms in Texas, of all places, conservatives can even brag about “leading” the charge for reduced incarceration. But much is left out of this narrative, some of which emerged at the event last week.
Naturally, there was a designated critic of the reform consensus there: Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, who, while lauding the desire to find alternatives to prison, challenged the idea that we can release many current prisoners without threatening public safety. (Disclosure: Mac Donald advised me during a journalism fellowship I held in 2009.)
But there was also the deeper question of whether a consensus really exists. During a Q&A session, Paul Mirengoff of the blog Power Line noted a federal sentencing-reform bill that has struggled to win the support of congressional Republicans. In response, David Dagan, Prison Break’s other coauthor, advanced the theory that it’s actually easier to fix sentencing in deep-red states than at the federal level because one-party control opens up …read more
Via:: American Conservative
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