Sentencing Reform

Christian Ethicist Says Freeing Prisoners 'Would Make Their Lives Worse'

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argues that sentencing reform "won't work" without more welfare spending.

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In a recent New Republic essay, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig notes that "criminal justice reform, especially prison reform, has become a rare point of bipartisan activism." But don't get too excited, she says, because conservatives are only in it for the money. Bruenig thinks any money saved by reducing the prison population should be spent on social services, but the Republicans who support sentencing reform will never go for that, which means "Conservatives' Prison Reform Plans Won't Work" (as the headline puts it). Is Bruenig, who specializes in "Christian ethics," saying that efforts to make our criminal justice system less senselessly punitive are not worth pursuing unless taxpayers' money is reallocated in the way she prefers? She sure seems to be:

The real question isn't whether these conservatives care about the disadvantaged, but whether their approach will indeed improve the lives of the disadvantaged. There's strong evidence of quite the opposite—that it would make their lives worse.

Bruenig never supplies that evidence. In fact, two paragraphs later, she concedes that "reducing prison populations will doubtlessly improve a vast number of lives." Two paragraphs after that, she admits that "reducing the prison population would improve the lives of the otherwise incarcerated." The fact that she felt compelled to make such blindingly obvious statements should have alerted her that her train of thought had run off the rails. But Bruenig is so focused on discrediting the Koch brothers, Rand Paul, and other reform-friendly Republicans that she is oblivious to this logical disaster.

I understand that, in Bruenig's view, freeing people serving draconian sentences is not enough. She would also like to see more government spending on education, job training, health care, and drug treatment to address "the underlying issues that compromise the lives of people long before they become inmates." But even if that money never materializes, making the punishment fit the crime by locking up fewer people for less time is not just a worthwhile goal that unites people on the left and right. It is morally obligatory. 

Although Bruenig semi-retracts her thesis that people are better off in prison ("the only place where healthcare and college education come free to vastly poor populations") than they would be on the outside without the government's financial support, her main purpose is to undermine the bipartisan, transideological alliance in favor of criminal justice reform. It is hard to understand why anyone who truly cares about this issue would want to do that. Bills recently introduced by Republicans along with Democrats would free thousands of drug offenders and help thousands of future defendants avoid prison or spend less time there. That is worth doing no matter what happens to the money that would have been spent on keeping those people in cages.

These bills already face opposition from "tough on crime" authoritarians like Chuck Grassley, and now Bruenig is encouraging progressives to view them with suspicion by saying they "won't work." They will work if the goal is to alleviate the egregious injustices inflicted by our mindlessly harsh penal system. People who do not belong in prison should not be held hostage until Bruenig's spending demands are met.