Prisons

Criminal Justice Reform—on the Right

Conservatives vs. the penal state

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Attica! Attica!

David Dagan and Steven M. Teles have a long, fascinating story in the current Washington Monthly headlined "The Conservative War on Prisons." Political figures known for their law-and-order rhetoric have discovered the evils of mass incarceration, the writers report. Conservatives who once called for privatizing prisons now just want to see prisons rolled back. The American Legislative Exchange Council has dropped its support not just for prison privatization but for mandatory minimums and other carceral measures. Republican lawmakers are starting to follow suit: "more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead." And the reformers aren't just bean-counting. "Skeptics might conclude that conservatives are only rethinking criminal justice because lockups have become too expensive," Dagan and Teles write. "But whether prison costs too much depends on what you think of incarceration's benefits. Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits on trial."

Reason readers know some of this story already. Mike Riggs has written about Florida conservatives' push for penal reform, for example, and Radley Balko has noted the evolution of Ed Meese on these issues. (We've also pointed out places where the right's transformation still has a ways to go, as when we tried to make sense of the mixed signals in the latest GOP platform or when we highlighted problems with the reformers' beloved drug courts.) But I haven't seen anyone pull the narrative together in one place the way Dagan and Teles do. They've done an especially good job of showing how much Christian conservatives have come around on these issues.

But the element of the article that I liked best is the lesson they've drawn from the tale:

Now can we have a left/right revolt against surveillance, too?

The story of how conservatives began to change their positions on incarceration holds lessons far from the world of prisons. Advocates of policy change, their funders, and well-meaning pundits regularly bemoan the ideological stiffening that bedevils efforts at bipartisan cooperation. The usual answer to hyper-polarization is to somehow rebuild the center. But the power of party activists (especially on the right) to control primary elections and discipline politicians who step out of line is not going to go away anytime soon….The lesson of the slowly changing politics of crime on the right is that policy breakthroughs in our current environment will happen not through "middle-path" coalitions of moderates, but as a result of changes in what strong, ideologically defined partisan activists and politicians come to believe is their own, authentically conservative or liberal position. Conservatives over the last few years haven't gone "soft." They've changed their minds about what prisons mean. Prisons increasingly stand for big-government waste, and prison guards look more and more like public school teachers.

This shift in meaning on the right happened mainly because of creative, persuasive, long-term work by conservatives themselves. Only advocates with unquestioned ideological bona fides, embedded in organizations known to be core parts of conservative infrastructure, could perform this kind of ideological alchemy.

NEXT: Steve Chapman on Republican Support for the Electoral College

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  1. An unholy alliance of Christian Conservatives, libertarian Republicans and fiscal Conservatives (however much those three groups might otherwise find overlap notwithstanding)? And what about the number of prosecutors who go on to be legislators. Those people will have to be dealt with in any reform movement.

    1. Dealt with with extreme prejudice?

  2. “an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians”

    Utterly impossible! Why would libertarians suffer ideological contamination from these Sky-Daddy-worshipers who probably stick pins into a voodoo doll of Charles Darwin?

    It’s much better to make alliances with the progressive left, who will be more than happy to give a hand by ranting and raving about the prison-industrial complex, while feeling politically obliged to support mandatory minimums until they’re on the way out, then jump on the bandwagon and pretend that abolishing these minimums was their idea all along!

    1. All libertarians are are even more racist far right wing Republicans. Now their true stripes are just showing.

    2. What’s worse, people who make everything about politics or people who make everything about religion?

    3. Why would libertarians suffer ideological contamination from these Sky-Daddy-worshipers who probably stick pins into a voodoo doll of Charles Darwin?

      Uh, Eddie, that’s an overwrought and inaccurate comic-book level parody of what atheists think about evangelicals. Sticking pins in voodoo dolls? Really? Atheists understand fundies a lot better than fundies understand atheists. And atheists know that fundies do not practice (what they consider to be) witchcraft, no matter how much they detest Darwin.

      1. Sarcasm detector, Tonio. Turn yours on.

    4. Utterly impossible! Why would libertarians suffer ideological contamination from these Sky-Daddy-worshipers who probably stick pins into a voodoo doll of Charles Darwin?

      So true. I know that I, as an atheist, would be very agreeable to a Santorum or Huckabee presidency if it weren’t for their religious beliefs.

      *pulls lever for Obama*

      1. Not sure if serious.

          1. One is never sure here. And, yeah, it’s my fault that I don’t pay enough attention to remember who is reliably serious and who’s not, except for a few of the old-time regulars.

  3. Only advocates with unquestioned ideological bona fides…could perform this kind of ideological alchemy.

    At first, that was kind of chilling.

    Then I remembered, “I don’t really give a FUCK how politicians arrive at the right answer once in awhile – if they get it right, I’m just happy.”

    Still – never trust a Team member.

    1. Only Nixon could go to China and not be accused of being soft on commies.

      1. Yep. Sometimes it’s gotta be an insider.

        1. Often it has to be an insider.

    2. Then I remembered, “I don’t really give a FUCK how politicians arrive at the right answer once in awhile – if they get it right, I’m just happy.”

      See, I find this reasoning flawed. If they don’t know why they changed a law, then they can’t know why the “old ways” didn’t work in the first place.

      1. You misread this – it’s not “reasoning” – it’s “happy even if they stumble into it.”

        And “never trust a TEAM member – cause they just ignore feedback that doesn’t agree with their views anyway.

        Fuck ’em all

  4. Isn’t something like 90% of all criminal cases plea-bargained or something? Maybe getting rid of mandatory minimums (which I doubt) would decrease their usage for quick wins by prosecutors.

    But what we really need to do is start repealing laws wholesale. Then maybe we reduce 3 felonies a day down to 2.

    1. Legalizing pot, not decriminalization, but full on have as much in your possession as you want legalization, would not only drop the prison rolls by something like 20% straight out, (based on “non-violent offender” statistics) But you also cut out several thousand annual “violent” felonies, like possession of a firearm in commision of a felony (transporting more than a certain weight of pot) and resisting arrest with violence. I don’t think people realize what percentage of their state taxes are spent locking up dope smokers and people who sell dope so they can smoke it.

      1. Brett there’s a difference between legalizing something and pardoning people previously convicted of that something. From a harm reduction standpoint, anything is progress. But consistency and true justice require that prisoners be releases, records be expunged, etc. Except I’m not sure how WA and CO are going to deal with those. I suspect that those who were convicted during the prohibition regime are not going to fare as well as you think. Because that raises some uncomfortable questions which society would rather not deal with. Like the fact that those convicted and incarcerated are now “hardened convicts, too dangerous to be let out on the streets.” Or the cost of having to pay reparations to those convicted under prohibition; then cops, prosecutors and judges would have to admit they were wrong in a very big and public way and those people don’t like having their authority challenged.

      2. 20% ?

        May I ask where you got that number?

        1. Here’s one source. There are hundreds more if you look.

    2. Maybe getting rid of mandatory minimums (which I doubt) would decrease their usage for quick wins by prosecutors.

      Also getting rid of over-charging a suspect would help as well. Prosecutors pile on the charges to get people to plead.

      1. This. Simple possession can turn into possession with intent to distribute, possession of a firearm is commission of a felony etc. real quick.

        1. You could bash someone on the head with that keyboard, Royal Bank of Scotland!

          Put down the keyboard and step backwards! Put DOWN the keyboard and STEP BACK! DO IT!!!

          1. STOP RESISTING [thump] STOP RESISTING [thump] STOP RESISTING [thump]

  5. But what we really need to do is start repealing laws wholesale.

    We could concentrate our law enforcement priorities on actions which result in actual harm to other people or their property.

    Naah, that would never work.

    1. We could concentrate our law enforcement priorities on actions which result in actual harm to other people or their property.

      Have you ever been the victim of a crime to your person or property?

      I have.

      The cops couldn’t give a shit. Those kids of crimes are difficult to prove, and there is no property to seize. They could care less.

      On the other hand it is easy to prove that you were in possession of contraband, and contraband laws allow for the taking of property.

      Nothing will change anytime soon.

      1. Have you ever been the victim of a crime to your person or property?

        Yup.

        The cops couldn’t give a shit.

        Double yup.

        One of the worst things I saw was something that didn’t happen to me, but I was a witness.

        In the parking lot of a restaurant I worked at, which we shared with another place, there was a reaaally drunk dude laying on the hood one of the waitress’ cars. She told him to get off, so he stood up, jumped up and down on the hood, and the ripped her antenna out. She started yelling at him so he pushed here down so she ran in and got some people and the cops were called. They seemed annoyed that we called them, first of all, but more importantly they refused to do anything. Wouldn’t even take the dude’s name so she could sue him for damages. They told the guy, who was still being belligerent, to just go.

        Maybe the guy got in his car and ran over one of those cops’ kids, fuck if they care.

        1. Hoy fuck, so the drunk dude was still there and they still didn’t do shit? Not even arrest him for vandalism and assault and battery? The fuck? At least in my case they had the excuse that there were no witnesses so it would be nearly impossible to ever solve.

          1. Yeah, and there were like 20 witnesses. As the dude stumbled away he was still yelling and being an asshole.

            All the cooks just wanted to cut the dude up and make the day’s special out of him but the owners were worried about ‘liability’. A manager did said later, “What the fuck was up with those cops? We should of just fucked that dude up and dumped him by the trash out back.”

      2. I had my car broken into a few years ago and the stereo and anything that wasn’t nailed down taken. Fucking cops didn’t even send anyone out to look at it. Just took a report over the phone and gave me a case number to give to my insurance company when I filed my claim. Fuckers.

        1. Well, Loki, they were probably busy busy doing real police work like shooting dogs or breaking into some old lady’s house.

        2. wow. god forbid. efficiency. fwiw, that’s what my agency does unless they “demand” an officer. in some cases , it can take hours before one is avaialbe to take same report. taking it over the phone is quick and efficient. you can also file over the internet. contrary to CSI crap, we are not going to collect a bunch of forensics on a car prowl.

          imagine, a libertarian complaining about increased efficiency because it (is perceived as) negatively affecting them. do you need an officer to hold your hand and make you feel better?

          you complain about the cops doing EXACTLY what they should do – take a phone report.

          granted, my agency has far fewer officers per capita than the national average, as does my state (WA)

          1. you complain about the cops doing EXACTLY what they should do – take a phone report.

            Then we should outsource your worthless job to India, but you get off on ripping off taxpayers.

              1. i would have no problem with outsourcing

                we ALREADY effectively outsource

                phone reports are taken by call receivers getting about $30 /hr NOT by cops who get about $45 per hr

                we already DO outsource. instead of sworn, highly paid police, we have unsworn civilian (so to speak) call takers taking these reports

                hth

                so we agree. outsource.

                1. and also note the efficiency in no money spent on drive time lost , gas for the car, etc. over the phone is FAR more efficient

    2. Funny you mention that. Marc Victor a criminal defense attorney who was Jeff Flake’s libertarian opponent, mentions in this talk:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcrc1tBK5IE
      about two types of cops:
      the more common “law enforcement” officer, and what he calls the peace officer

      1. Watching this video right now.

        Best ‘know yer rights/how to talk to cops’ video ever. Very entertaining.

  6. OT: Comments from the Detroit News article suggesting the US needs to spend less to really “fix” the budget.

    Exhibit A: “Obama isn’t spending more than his predecessors. He’s spending less.”

    Exhibit B: “We can’t go bankrupt. The country’s budget isn’t a household budget. We have the Fed. Read up and learn. *link to some bullshit or other*”

    We. Are. DOOOOOOOOOOOMED.

    1. Exhibit B: “We can’t go bankrupt. The country’s budget isn’t a household budget. We have the Fed. Read up and learn. *link to some bullshit or other*”

      Wasn’t there a republic somewhere that tried that? Or even a country recently if that is too far in the past. Worked out splendidly for both, IIRC.

    2. As long as people are still making money the government will never go bankrupt.

    3. More than doomed. This gem of a comment on Ron Paul’s farewell speech:
      http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/po…..as-failed/

      FDR spoke of the “Four Freedoms”: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How is that Ron Paul has remained ignorant of so much of the world in which real people live their lives?

      Whereas FDR was a genius, Ron Paul is an self-indulgent idiot child.

      1. Imagine if lead in gasoline and paint was never regulated. Imagine if DDT was never regulated. Imagine if the natural resources in our National Parks were sold to the highest bidder in the name of Liberty. Imagine if water is not regulated. What are the consequences if we keep using three gallons of drinking water every time we pass half a pint of, um, human waste? Desalination isn’t the solution. I agree too much regulation and power is detrimental, but there is a moderate and reasonable level needed, otherwise we will foolishly spoil our future. people have always fought conservation and responsible regulation as a barrier to freedom, liberty and prosperity, but imagine what our rivers and lakes would be like if virtues and morals empowered our government to keep people that don’t have the virtue or morals to be good stewards of the land and our having to live together.

        Fuck.

        1. “What are the consequences if we keep using three gallons of drinking water every time we pass half a pint of, um, human waste?”

          When can I start recycling my own water? I can’t, because some government idiot decided I can’t be responsible for my own water use. Regulations are there for my own good…or some such shit.

        2. Imagine if DDT was never regulated.

          Millions of lives would be saved, and kids would finally quit fucking starving in Africa?

        3. This person has never even heard of a septic tank, much less wastewater treatment plants, eh? Fuck me. It just boggles my mind how stupid people are.

          Beyond that, you’d think a nature run on evolution would come up with some sort of, I don’t know, organism that could transform urea — which most animals produce as a liquid waste into energy and something else. Oh wait, they’re called plants.

      2. This one is even better.

        Ron Paul’s “legacy”. This man has done ‘more damage’ to this country with his ‘subjective, personal belief’ in the ‘interpretation of constitutionlty?than any other American over the past 3 decades. Because all he has done is ‘rile up’ every crackpot, conspiracy theorist and non-progressive mind in our country and taught them what? To think “small” and to distrust a government that is there for all 300 million of us to make ALL our lives better. NOT just the the richest ‘few’. He has gotten a ‘sizeable’ amount of our country to not understand the ‘real issues’ confronting us all today?with his unattainable fantasy belief of how “he thinks’ it could be.

        WRECKERS

        1. Please stop. I’m suicidal as it is.

    4. *facepalm* Fucking shit, people are morons. I’m actually starting to hope for the Mayan apocolypse thing to happen next month. We don’t deserve to exist as a species.

  7. We have the Fed. Read up and learn.

    “We CAN’T be broke. We The Fed still has checks.”

    1. I have -lots- of checks. I can just keep writing them, right?

      1. Only if your ass can cash them.

  8. What are the consequences if we keep using three gallons of drinking water every time we pass half a pint of, um, human waste?

    When you flush the toilet, that water is gone forever. FOREVER.

    Soon the entire planet will be a desert, just because of toilets.

    1. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to plumb a house so that screened water from the sink, shower, dishwasher, etc went to flush toilets.

      If governments allowed the price of water to reach reasonable levels in the desert, we might even see that happen.

      1. That’s called gray water, Spoonman, and yes the people who are serious about conservation are aware of this. The problem is that under most municipal codes gray water is treated the same as raw sewage. Some minor problems with gray water particularly that containing food waste (even if coarsely filtered), but (most) shower and washing machine discharge is A-OK for flushing. Just don’t tell the gummint.

  9. I agree too much regulation and power is detrimental

    I dread to contemplate what this person deems to be “excessive” regulation.

  10. Last night at my Bible study we discussed Hebrews 13, of which verse 3 says: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

    Everyone but me thought that they were only referring to Christians thrown in jail for being Christian, not prisoners in general, because there’s just no way that ordinary prisoners should be lumped in with religious prisoners. Oh, and verse 17 supposedly means that we should submit to the government regardless of who is in power. I don’t doubt that there are evangelicals that are sympathetic to prisoners or that are skeptical of government authority, because I am, but there’s still work to do.

    1. I’m with you on both fronts.

      Just because it says to have confidence and submit to your leaders, doesn’t mean we should do so blindly.

      I believe the purpose of that passage is more that, in an environment with overbearing, power drunk “leaders”, individuals resisting does nothing but make things worse. When your mission is a religious revolution, that you want to happen under the radar, believers publicly resisting authority tends to bring down the hand of government hard on the heads of others also.

      All passages need to be taken in context, not just of the surrounding writings, but also of the personal, cultural and political landscape.

      1. That’s interesting, because I always felt the same way, but the two churches two of my best friends go to explicitly deny that belief.

        To them, the Word of God is eternal and correct as revealed, and requires no context whatsoever. Indeed, trying to intrepet it through a contextual lens is simply an attempt to pervert the Word to what a modern person wishes it to say, rather than what it actually does say.

    2. And good luck with that, Bro.

  11. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to plumb a house so that screened water from the sink, shower, dishwasher, etc went to flush toilets.

    I’m pretty sure I have seen plans for systems which use “grey water” this way. And you’re right, if the true cost of water were made known, those systems would be widely used.

    One of my pet theories about “global warming” is that a major portion of phenomena ascribed to AGW is really just stupid water policy.

    1. Yeah, mostly on RV’s.

      1. saw plans for same in the Whole Earth Caatalog YEARS ago. classic hippie text, btw. iirc, such systems had been used in several locales.

        1. [Makes peace sign in Dunphy’s direction, tries to look sincere]

  12. Makes sense. Prison is a fairly new phenomenon. In the old days, you’d be imprisoned only if you were, like, a disloyal duke or something.

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