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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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But while the new approaches​—​fewer prisons, more drug treatment, more alternative sentences, a focus on community monitoring, reducing the number of offenses punishable by law, and a generally more lenient attitude towards people who have served their time​—​may well be consistent with conservative values and principles, they are, nonetheless, a break from orthodoxy. 

Much of the best research offered in support of these approaches comes from liberal organizations like the Pew Center on the States and the Urban Institute, and they stand in stark contrast to the heavily punitive tough-on-crime stances taken by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and even Joe Biden (the author of major crime-related legislation supported by both Reagan and Clinton).

So why have conservative attitudes changed?

First, and perhaps most important, the politics have changed. After serving as a major issue in every presidential election from 1960 to 1992, crime has more or less vanished from public debate. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney so much as mentioned it in his party convention address, or in any of the debates. In most of the country, politicians’ attitudes toward crime and criminals sway few votes. With elected leaders no longer fearful of the ballot box consequences of taking a superficially “soft” stance on crime (the actual policies are anything but soft), the voices of those who seek criminal justice reform have been strengthened.

Technology also plays a role. It is much easier today to treat and monitor potentially dangerous people outside of correctional institutions than it was in the past. In particular, GPS tracking devices allow police, parole, and probation officers to monitor offenders closely without actually locking them up. While relapse and recidivism rates remain high, new pharmaceuticals and other treatments have improved our ability to help those with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Restrictions have also been loosened to allow faith-based groups greater freedom to operate inside correctional facilities, giving many offenders new and effective pathways toward personal reform.

The justice system has also changed. In particular, new specialty courts​—​most prominently “drug courts”​—​have encouraged judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and social workers to work together to help offenders mend their ways rather than simply locking them up. The approach, pioneered in the late 1980s, has spread to almost all sizable jurisdictions in the United States and has shown some promise to deal with a variety of thorny issues including mental health and domestic abuse.

Other trends that are more difficult to measure also play a role. Recent years have seen tremendous growth in the number of African Americans employed as law enforcement officers and police chiefs. This has coincided both with a significant drop in crime rates among African Americans and with a general easing of “oppositional” tensions that led police forces to be viewed (sometimes correctly) as racist organizations in some black communities.

Just as important, however, conservatives have simply decided to change with the times.

“We don’t say conservatives were wrong in the 1980s and 1990s when they said ‘We need more prisons,’    ” explains Marc Levin, who heads the Right on Crime coalition for TPPF. “But as we expanded incarceration, we’ve swept in a lot of low-risk offenders and spent a lot of money.”

Nor is the new thinking a total reversal. Conservatives may work to end the criminalization of matters that should be left to regulators and the civil courts, like laws against taking oysters from unapproved beds or missing deadlines to file environmental paperwork. But longtime left-wing causes like decriminalizing possession of hard drugs and legalizing prostitution have gained adherents only among hardcore libertarians. Although they’re generally popular when conservative prison reformers talk amongst themselves, there have likewise been few public efforts to ease superficially “tough” policies that deny early release to the seriously ill and make it almost impossible for convicts to qualify for college financial aid. Even marijuana legalization efforts, which have some support among conservatives, have been disconnected from the broader movement toward prison reform. And notably, while U.S. incarceration rates are dropping, they remain the highest in the developed world.

Still, the changes in prison policy​—​and particularly the new emphasis on prisoner reentry​—​represent a significant evolution of the conservative movement. Times have changed, crime has changed, and conservatism has changed, too.

Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.

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