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June 10, 2013

"A Conservative Case for Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this op-ed appearing in today's New York Times and authored by Richard Viguerie, the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com. Here are excerpts:

Conservatives should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs.  Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.

But it’s not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.

These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy.  Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

The United States now has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners.  Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate — everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole — was less than half that: 1 in every 77 adults.

The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985.  It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Conservatives should be leading the way by asking tough questions about the expansion in prison spending over the past three decades....

Too many offenders leave prisons unprepared to re-enter society. They don’t get and keep jobs. The solution lies not only inside prisons but also with more effective community supervision systems using new technologies, drug tests and counseling programs.  We should also require ex-convicts to either hold a job or perform community service.  This approach works to turn offenders from tax burdens into taxpayers who can pay restitution to their victims and are capable of contributing child support....

Right on Crime exemplifies the big-picture conservative approach to this issue.  It focuses on community-based programs rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentencing policies and prison expansion.  Using free-market and Christian principles, conservatives have an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice as an alternative to government-knows-best programs that are failing prisoners and the society into which they are released....

By confronting this issue head on, conservatives are showing that our principles lead to practical solutions that make government less costly and more effective. We need to do more of that.  Conservatives can show the way by impressing on more of our allies and political leaders that criminal justice reform is part of a conservative agenda.

Some recent and older related posts:

June 10, 2013 at 09:10 PM | Permalink


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"The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in..."

Then perhaps Mr. Viguerie can explain why the present system, with its high levels of incarceration, features a crime rate half that of the prior system with low levels of incarceration.

Oh, wait, he doesn't mention the crime rate. Also doesn't mention the cost savings of having less crime. Lan' sakes alive!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 10, 2013 9:28:51 PM

Good luck on selling reform to this degree. Most went Ito prison in poor shape, it was an upgrade to their life style.

Posted by: MidWestguy | Jun 10, 2013 9:40:28 PM

Bill, greetings! I think Mr. Viguerie's point is well taken. Contrary to your response, that here is a lower crime rate now is not necessarily the result of increased incarceration. I am more persuaded by Sentencing Commission's own recognition of the “criminogenic effects of imprisonment which include contact with more serious offenders, disruption of legal employment, and weakening of family ties.” U.S. Sent’g Comm’n, Staff Discussion Paper, Sentencing Options Under the Guidelines (1996).

See also Justin Murray, Reimagining Criminal Prosecution, 49 American Criminal Law Review (2012) at 1565 (“Rather than rehabilitating prisoners, modern incarceration tends to make prisoners more violent, antisocial, and prone to criminality”). Murray also observes that “Most who study prison life believe there are significant brutalizing effects to imprisonment that impair prisoners’ inclination to conform to the law.” Id (quoting Dina R. Rose & Todd R. Clear, Incarceration, Social Capital and Crime: Implications for Social Disorganization Theory, 36 Criminology 442, 465 (1998).

See also Sharon Dolovich, Exclusion and Control in the Carceral State, 16 Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law 259 (2011) (abstract of paper discussing “the self-defeating nature of current carceral practices — the way the combination of prison conditions and postcarceral burdens ensures that many people who have done time will return to society more prone to criminal activity than previously”).

Finally, see U.S. v. Bannister 786 F.Supp.2d 617 (E.D.N.Y.,2011) (“Recidivism may be promoted by the behavior traits prisoners develop while incarcerated.” To survive, they “tend to develop characteristics institutionally selected for survival: circumspection, canniness, coldness, and cruelty.” ...After release, the negative traits cultivated in prison may be received as virtues on the street. “[P]rison usually enhances one's prestige on the street, particularly in terms of ... values like toughness, nerve, and willingness to retaliate for transgressions....” (citations omitted)).

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jun 11, 2013 1:56:09 PM

I vote for Levine and Viguerie on this one.

Posted by: onlooker14 | Jun 11, 2013 4:36:29 PM

"[W]hy [does] the present system, with its high levels of incarceration, feature[] a crime rate half that of the prior system with low levels of incarceration[?]"


Posted by: Michael Drake | Jun 11, 2013 6:10:17 PM

Rest easy, Bill. The conviction/incarceration system you helped build and continue to foster is thoroughly ensconced as a noxious profits/jobs industry just like Exxon, Dow Chemical, Haliburton and any number of other awful but beyond-fixing entities that own/control the centers of power.

Posted by: JohnK | Jun 12, 2013 10:04:39 AM

Lets see. Take a 35 year old guy and lock him up in some jail for 30 days for abusing his girlfriend. One day in jail is a long time. You sit and stand and yak with the other inmates. They have all sorts of ideas and grievances. And they have ways to make money out on the outside without working so hard and a gang of guys to hang out with. So come on dude, come round the hood when ya get out and hang with us.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jun 14, 2013 12:13:31 AM

My sympathies, MidWestguy. You must be having a miserable life. It's either that or a complete lack of imagination. I doubt if many/any inmates consider the cage an upgrade from whatever they were doing outside.

Posted by: JohnK | Jun 14, 2013 4:02:44 PM

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