Criminal Justice Reform—on the Right

Conservatives vs. the penal state


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:

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.