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The Party of Prison Reform

Conservatives lead the way.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By ELI LEHRER
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Michael Hough​—​a second-term Republican state legislator from Frederick County, Md.​—​is about as conservative as blue-state legislators come. He played a prominent role in opposing the state’s new gay marriage law, holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, and received a 100 percent score from the state’s business lobby.

Can we let some of them out?

Can we let some of them out?


The major focus of his legislative agenda, however, crushes any stereotypes that might come to mind, given his résumé. Hough wants to reform America’s prisons and help the more than 500,000 people who come home from correctional facilities every year.

In the past few years, he’s successfully pushed programs that offer well-behaved offenders the chance to significantly shorten their time under state supervision and that replace potentially long sentences with “swift and certain” stays in prison for failed drug tests and other slip ups. This year, he’s working to pass mental health reforms and to create a “certificate of rehabilitation” program that allows ex-offenders to present formal evidence that they’ve mended their ways.

“As a fiscal conservative, it just made sense to me. We spend a lot on prisons,” he says. “On a human level, I know that people sometimes just get trapped in addiction.”

Hough isn’t alone. Around the country, dozens of political leaders with rock-solid conservative credentials have begun to take a new line on crime and, particularly, the issue of reintegrating ex-offenders into society. This loose movement represents a sea change in conservative thinking and, arguably, the largest social reform effort to emerge from the right in several decades.

The efforts have affected much of the country. Since 2007, conservatives have led the charge for major criminal justice reforms in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Kansas, South Carolina, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Georgia, among other states. Many conservatives have also supported efforts led by liberals in states like Michigan (under former governor Jennifer Granholm). “It’s at the point where we have critical mass. It’s a movement,” says Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries. “It’s a conservative movement that focuses on being skeptical of bureaucracy and getting the most value out of the tax dollars we collect.”

While budgetary concerns have been the impetus for many of these efforts, relatively flush states like South Dakota​—​where Republican governor Dennis Daugaard signed sweeping legislation earlier this month​—​have embarked on reforms just as significant as fiscal basket-case California.

Judeo-Christian commandments to care for prisoners have no doubt been a significant part of the reform movement, as evidenced by the prominent role that Prison Fellowship Ministries has played in nearly all the efforts. The organization was founded by the late Charles Colson and counts a bevy of distinguished conservative pols (including Nolan, a former Republican leader in the California legislature) among its staff and supporters. But just as much passion has emanated from libertarians and “Main Street” conservatives worried about big, wasteful, and inefficient government, many of whom have joined the Right on Crime coalition spearheaded by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF, which also counts many religiously motivated supporters).

In many ways, the changing attitudes toward offenders reflect conservative values. Hough, Nolan, and others like them note that drug treatment can hold offenders responsible; that making ex-offenders eligible for professional licenses represents a triumph of deregulation; and that keeping parents out of jail strengthens families.

“Everything we did was rooted in true conservative values of [being] pro-family, changing offender behavior, and saving money,” says Jim Seward, who served as Daugaard’s point man on the reforms in South Dakota.

The results, in both fiscal and human terms, are impressive. After climbing more or less steadily for the better part of four decades, per-capita incarceration rates began to level off after the first major reforms were implemented in the mid-2000s. Since peaking in 2008, the prison and jail population has been declining. Importantly, the decline has done nothing to reverse the falling crime rates that we’ve seen since the mid-1990s. In fact, states that have reduced their prison populations have seen crime decline at the same or greater rates than states that haven’t. Indeed, as measured by overall crime statistics, the United States is safer today than at any time since the 1960s and also safer than any other sizable developed Western country. (Homicide rates remain higher than in other rich nations.) Reports of victimization collected in telephone polls by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show an even deeper drop in crime.

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