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November 13, 2012

"The Conservative War on Prisons"

1211-dagan-teles_hiliteThe title of this post is the headline of this terrific feature article by David Dagan and Steven Teles appearing in the latest issue of Washington Monthly.  The sub-heading provides insights into the many themes of the important piece: "Right-wing operatives have decided that prisons are a lot like schools: hugely expensive, inefficient, and in need of root-and-branch reform. Is this how progress will happen in a hyper-polarized world?"  Here is how this new must-read article gets started:

American streets are much safer today than they were thirty years ago, and until recently most conservatives had a simple explanation: more prison beds equal less crime.  This argument was a fulcrum of Republican politics for decades, boosting candidates from Richard Nixon to George H. W. Bush and scores more in the states.  Once elected, these Republicans (and their Democratic imitators) built prisons on a scale that now exceeds such formidable police states as Russia and Iran, with 3 percent of the American population behind bars or on parole and probation.

Now that crime and the fear of victimization are down, we might expect Republicans to take a victory lap, casting safer streets as a vindication of their hard line.  Instead, more and more conservatives are clambering down from the prison ramparts.  Take Newt Gingrich, who made a promise of more incarceration an item of his 1994 Contract with America.  Seventeen years later, he had changed his tune.  “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Gingrich wrote in 2011.  “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

None of Gingrich’s rivals in the vicious Republican presidential primary exploited these statements.  If anything, his position is approaching party orthodoxy.  The 2012 Republican platform declares, “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.”  What’s more, a rogue’s gallery of conservative crime warriors have joined Gingrich’s call for Americans to rethink their incarceration reflex.  They include Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, William Bennett — even the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council.  Most importantly, more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead.

Skeptics might conclude that conservatives are only rethinking criminal justice because lockups have become too expensive.  But whether prison costs too much depends on what you think of incarceration’s benefits.  Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits on trial.  Discovering that the nation’s prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, they are beginning to attack it — and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed.

This will do more than simply put the nation on a path to a more rational and humane correctional system.  It will also provide an example of how bipartisan policy breakthroughs are still possible in our polarized age.  The expert-driven, center-out model of policy change that think-tank moderates and foundation check-writers hold dear is on the brink of extinction.  If it is to be replaced by anything, it will be through efforts to persuade strong partisans to rethink the meaning of their ideological commitments, and thus to become open to information they would otherwise ignore.  Bipartisan agreement will result from the intersection of separate ideological tracks — not an appeal to cross them.  This approach will not work for all issues.  But in an environment in which the center has almost completely evaporated, and in which voters seem unwilling to grant either party a decisive political majority, it may be the only way in which our policy gridlock can be broken.

Long-time readers know I have been talking about the prospects of a "new right" on crime and punishment issues all the way back in January 2005 when I asked in this post, "Is there a 'new right' on criminal sentencing issues?".  As some may also recall, in this 2008 Harvard Law & Policy Review piece, I wrote that "progressives can and should be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration."  I am so very pleased to see that more and more folks are highlighting and stressing the broader political and social importance of these developments.

A few of my (too?) many recent and older related posts: 

November 13, 2012 at 10:36 AM | Permalink


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From the article: "American streets are much safer today than they were thirty years ago, and until recently most conservatives had a simple explanation: more prison beds equal less crime."

The single most interesting thing about the article is that it relishes what it takes to be the new politics of imprisonment without even questioning, much less refuting, that statement.

More prison beds do indeed mean less crime. As I have often pointed out, increased imprisonment has made a very significant contribution to the generation-long reduction in crime. As one would expect, a reduction in imprisonment will equal an increase in crime. That is the point the article glides past, in favor of the giddy celebration of "bi-partisanship."

Yes, well. There are those to whom it makes more of a difference whether policy conferences go smoothly than whether more and more people -- generally people from a segment of society that does not send its members to policy conferences -- get belted over the head with a tire iron so that Mr. Nicey, who just got out of "incarceration nation," can finance his next crack hit.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 13, 2012 12:59:37 PM

Bill, do you quarrel with the above quotation from the Republican Platform:

“Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.”

Posted by: onlooker | Nov 13, 2012 1:47:00 PM

onlooker --

I absolutely do not quarrel with it, and I would note that it is not inconsistent with the fact that increased incarceration has significantly reduced crime over the last 25-30 years.

As the platform recognizes, almost all prisoners will be getting out at some point, and when they do, I would vastly prefer that they change their behavior.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 13, 2012 2:08:09 PM

Do crimes committed in prisons get included into crime statistics? Are incarcerated persons included into the population numbers used to calculate per capita crime statistics? I don't know, I'm just asking.

Posted by: C | Nov 13, 2012 2:25:59 PM

Definitely most inmates should be in prison.. I have a problem with the time limit that federal sentences entail.. The system is geared to give the maximum sentence and in most cases guideline sentences are still given.. Mostly substantial assistance cases get big breaks... If 20% of the $$ from the excess of yrs, were usede towards meaningful Tech job training. The key is meaningful.. Currently the training couldn't provide an inmate
entry level jobs, unless of coarse it was a federal job... Just not enough meat on the bone nor much in the way of capable instructors.. So re-entry programs are pretty much a waste of money, if one doesn't have a good chance to better oneself in the job market..
Most everything else is just cheap talk on re-entry... Sounds good for politicians..

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Nov 13, 2012 3:12:02 PM

Midwest Guy:

You can train all the people you want. There just aren't enough "productive" jobs out there (unlike non-productive government jobs who suck the wealth out of the nation, i.e., Federal Marshalls who now track sex-offenders, IRS Agents who will be incarcerating future individuals who lie about their health insurance on their income taxes, DOJ and FBI members who instigate as many crimes as they solve... you get the idea). The gubermint has wasted all the capital.

Start with the obvious, throw away the POS Adam Walsh Act. If you believe that there are 750,000 dangerous offenders out there, I have a bridge to sell you. At least we wouldn't need half the Marshalls that were recently hired. Then you wouldn't have the "cheap" recidivism figures for technical violations that are too numerous to list.

We are heading to you know where in a handbasket.

Posted by: albeed | Nov 13, 2012 5:11:52 PM

No doubt most of us on this forum who can remember where they were the day Reagan was shot are familiar with those old Popular Science magazines that extolled a future full of labor-saving devices. Now that we're in that future -- maybe without the Canadian Club jetpacks, but with factories that run more productively with only 5% of the crew needed 50 years ago -- we should drop the work ethic from society. Most first-world countries are wealthy enough to provide a decent living from 53% of the population without requiring them to work for it, while the other 47% who can contribute will happily self-actualize themselves doing rewarding, high-skilled jobs. Think Huxley, not Orwell.

Otherwise, as my 14-year-old daughter has been saying lately, we need a new plague.

Posted by: Bill K | Nov 13, 2012 6:17:49 PM

The view that prisons should rehabilitate is based on the fallacy that prisons are full of a homogenous group of people who have committed crimes for similar reasons (and who are all guilty of those crimes). This view presumes that all prisoners suffer from some sort of defect or flaw that creates criminal behavior and which needs to be corrected. But criminal defendants are a diverse group, motivated by different needs, desires, and impulses. The idea that they all need or would even respond to "rehabilitation" programming is naive and simplistic.

We like to classify offenders by the type of the crime they commit, but those types are broad brushes that don't even begin to represent the types of defendants who go to prison. So, for example, we call people "drug traffickers", but that includes stereotypical Mexican drug lords as well as pathetic single mothers who serve as mules; "bank robbers", which include gun-toting desperados as well as hapless losers at the ends of their rope who figure a successful robbery means a little money and failure at least means secure food and housing for a few years; "child pornographers", including predators who lure children into abuse and document it with cameras, as well as downloaders who would never actually touch a child; "frauds", including Madoff-like con men, incapable of honesty, who would steal their own mothers' life savings without a hint of remorse, as well as young kids recruited to pass fake checks for a ringleader who pockets most of the money.

Some of these people probably could not be "rehabilitated" with massive doses of psychotropic meds and a two-by-four, much less GED programs and vocational training. Some of them are just losers who don't really know how to get along in society, but could probably learn. Some are delusional (I'm looking at you, tax protestors). Many of them are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some of them might just lack direction or guidance; they probably don't even belong in prison in the first place.

So to say, “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization,” is a nice platitude, and who could disagree with it? But it's not really a meaningful policy statement. I see no evidence that prisons have figured out a way to identify those who can be rehabilitated, whatever that means, and less evidence that they know how to rehabilitate anyone. About the most prisons seem to do--and some of them do it very well--is develop classification systems to separate inmates according to security and custody needs. All that does is help keep the peace within the prison walls. But turning prisoners into "productive citizens" (again, whatever that means) is something that prisons have failed to do since the days of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Posted by: C.E. | Nov 13, 2012 10:59:12 PM

Bill K:

I was working in a lab/pilot plant when Reagan was shot. I was looking forward to the NCAA Basketball Tournamnet Finals to be held that night with North Carolina vs Indiana (by the way, now sports, not religion are the opiate of the masses).

Either way, you are still stealing from Peter to pay Paul and happy self-actualization can't last for any length of time. I don't see a lot of happiness in the current Greek system. I don't think that is the system that was intended for us here.

Posted by: albeed | Nov 13, 2012 11:04:02 PM


I usually distrust people who use words like seldom, never, always, sometimes, etc... as a chief component of their argument. Are some prisoners incorrigable - absolutely. Are some salvageable - absolutely. We should at least try to salvage as many as possible and not lump the potential salvageable automatically into the incorrigable group.

We should stop the overcriminalization and excessive sentences for PEOPLE WHO HAVE HARMED NO ONE! Not being completely honest (but not dishonest) to a fed, people who "make-out" and may or may not have sex who are only a few years different in age, people who make conceivable errors on government forms, people who are lured by LE on the internet pretending to be EAGER AND WILLING potential underage sex partners, people who inadverently find a file sharing site but do not download images, people who work on their own property or import items without all of the necessary papers and permits. No harm - minimal if any time.

Yes, robbers, molesters, thieves and real harm producers do need to receive sufficient punishment, but also the opportunity to be salvaged.

PS: A platitude is an idea or concept which everyone assumes to be true, but upon strict examination, it ain't necessarily so.

Posted by: albeed | Nov 13, 2012 11:43:40 PM

C.E. --

I agree with almost everything you say with the exception of your third paragraaph, which underplays greed, bullying and lack of normal empathy as reasons people wind up in prison.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 14, 2012 10:24:31 AM

I always thought that greed, bullying and lack of normal empathy qualifies you to be a member of LE or a USDA. Plus being not too smart in the sciences and math.

Posted by: albeed | Nov 14, 2012 8:45:57 PM

this is so true bill k.

"Otherwise, as my 14-year-old daughter has been saying lately, we need a new plague."

Trust me she's trying.

Bird Flu
Legionar's disease
Super Infections

she's trying

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 17, 2012 3:21:44 PM

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