Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Reform in the Age of Trump

What future for the right wing of the movement against mass incarceration?



"When my co-author David Dagan and I finished our recent book, Prison Break, at the end of last year, the prospects for criminal justice reform looked good," Steven Teles writes in the current edition of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute's monthly series of online debates. "The reason for our optimism was primarily that conservatives, after having spent much of the previous four decades embracing the tough-on-crime orthodoxy of increasing incarceration, were embracing the cause of reform."

Not surprisingly, Teles has grown more worried since then. Republicans' support for reform "is becoming muddied in the age of Trump," he writes:

Trump allies Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton, for instance, are among the strongest opponents of bipartisan sentencing reform in DC. If, as I expect, the Republican Party enters into full-on civil war in the aftermath of a Trump defeat, it is likely that crime, along with immigration and trade, will be key issues in the battle between reformers and Trumpistas.

Teles' piece still holds onto some hopes for conservative criminal justice reform, particularly at the state level. But note that phrase: "a Trump defeat." Teles' article—the lead essay of this month's Cato Unbound debate—went up the day before the election.

Ordinarily a number of responses would be posted by now (Marie Gottschalk, Jonathan Blanks, and Peter Moskos are all on deck to write them), but a week has passed and none has appeared yet. I suspect Teles isn't the only writer in this month's group whose expectations are being recalibrated right now. But stay tuned—we'll soon find out just how much optimism Teles and the rest still have now that the leader of the law'n'order wing of the party is preparing to enter the White House. Will the forum become a wake?

Bonus link: Kathleen Frydl reviewed Prison Break for Reason earlier this year.

Addendum: If that's not depressing enough for you, here's Radley Balko on "The Terrifying Prospect of an Attorney General Giuliani."