How the Religious Right Might Come Around on Prison Reform

Finding common ground on criminal justice and prison reform for America's right.


Chase Madar in American Conservative has an interesting interview with former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley that traces some of the ways in which someone from a traditional right did, and perhaps how others could, start thinking more sensibly about prison and crime in these here United States. (This is a matter on which Rand Paul is trying to be a leader.) Earley is a former president of the Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry.


….to talk to prisoners one-on-one and to the corrections officers, you get a different kind of story. You begin to see the collateral damage of imprisoning people. The greatest sociological predictor of whether someone's going to wind up in prison isn't their color or their income, it's whether their father or mother is in prison. The consequences are just devastating….

There was never a coherent, intellectually thought-out [conservative] position on law enforcement compared to the more robust, well thought-out conservative approach to taxation. But, of course, one of the most potent arguments against mass incarceration, for conservatives, is that if you believe in limited government and are against dependence on the state, and you look at our criminal-justice system, you're just not going to be very impressed by it. We have about one out of every hundred adults in this country under total state control. Think about that.

I saw that in the '80s and '90s, criminal-justice policies were driven more by what constituents wanted, what worked in the short term. But if you do that long enough, then all your constituents wind up having family members in jail….You can't have centuries of slavery and abject racism that don't have consequences across generations. Without a fair amount of consideration, minorities are gong to fare poorly in any criminal-justice system, especially with a history of marginalization.

Interviewer Madar wraps up with:

Depenalizing American society is going to take changes in policing, in sentencing, in parole and reentry, and in leaching out the lust for state punishment that has come to saturate so much social policy.

No political tribe has the power to do this by itself. Even in states with conservative supermajorities, rolling back Soviet-like incarceration levels is not going to happen without broad coalitions—not blandly "centrist" but quirkily transpartisan. The real challenge is going to be shifting the enormous depoliticized mass in the ideological middle, which has become passively radical in its acquiescence to hyperincarceration and overpolicing.

Back in 2010 Radley Balko wrote for Reason on an earlier iteration of Earley's evolution on matters of imprisonment, and the beginnings of a conservative revolution turning against cliched "tough on crime" thinking that ruins lives and beggars governments unnecessarily.

Yesterday, Elizabeth Nolan-Brown wrote about how the misuse of local jails  as essentially small scale debtors prisons for people who can't pay off state-imposed fines is fueling America's incarceration crisis.