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July 6, 2018

The American Conservative explains "Where the Right Went Wrong on Criminal Justice"

JulyAugustArthur Rizer and Lars Trautman from the R Street Institute have this remarkable new commentary in The American Conservative under the full headline "Where the Right Went Wrong on Criminal Justice: Ending our 'incarceration nation' would help return conservatives to their roots, acting on principles most of them already hold."  Long-time readers are surely aware of my long-enduring contention that a lot of conservative ideology and rhetoric would seem to push toward advocacy for sentencing and other criminal justice reforms, and thus I really enjoyed this full lengthy piece (which, according the editors, is "the first in a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform). I recommend the piece in full, and here is just a small snippet:

When it comes to criminal justice, the Republicans have for decades declared themselves to be the party of “law and order.” This commitment to “tough on crime” policies helped it win elections in the latter half of the 20th century, but at the cost of a society in which a third of working-age Americans have criminal records and more than 10 million people go to jail each year. The fact that the United States, with nearly 2.2 million Americans behind bars, incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation is not a point of pride. This shameful position is put in even starker relief when one considers that the nations with the second and third highest number of incarcerated individuals are China and Russia, respectively.

These realities, products of the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” sensibility of yesteryear, have tarnished the image of Republicans and conservatives in the minds of many. Though Republicans have greatly increased their political power in recent elections, they have nevertheless alienated many of the fastest growing segments of the electorate, casting a pall across the impressive electoral successes of the past decade.

The extension of conservative principles to criminal justice policies offers a chance to court new constituencies and bring conservative messages to voting blocs that will dominate American politics in the future, all without risking the current base of conservative support. Already, right-leaning organizations, armed with polling data that show significant backing from many conservatives, are mobilizing on criminal justice issues. It’s time to leverage these efforts to rebuild the conservative identity. Perhaps no other policy area holds more potential than criminal justice reform....

The inherent dignity of every human life is another tenet of the Republican Party that lives on in the conservative movement today.  However, it is also an issue that permeates too few aspects of the criminal justice system.  From abhorrent prison conditions to the stigmatization of the formerly incarcerated to the negative public safety implications of ill-conceived criminal justice policies, there is no shortage of ways in which the justice system cheapens life.  Efforts to alleviate these various forms of suffering and protect our communities offer conservatives another path to better defend the intrinsic worth of every human life.

Given the Christian Right’s prominence within modern conservatism, it seems prudent to at least consider how current criminal justice policies compare to Christian values. While conservatives certainly do not hold dominion over Christian values, Christians represent a substantial portion of the conservative base.  Further, Christian interest groups hold special power within the conservative movement, with many, particularly on the Left, being wary of how this influence might be used.

Maybe the most obvious lesson is from Christ himself — a criminal in the eyes of the state, subject to a miscarriage of justice by an imperfect criminal justice system. Beyond the despicable treatment of Christ, however, are the lessons he gave on how those accused and those guilty of crimes should be treated.  He recognized the “legality” of stoning an adulteress but nonetheless shamed the crowd by asking for the one who had not sinned to “cast the first stone.”  This is an important lesson for conservatives—that the legality of punishment should not be the end of the inquiry of what is just.

While the Bible certainly has examples of harsh punishments, it’s important to note that throughout his life Christ spoke persistently and passionately about reconciliation over retribution.  He famously told his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Criminal justice reform offers conservatives an opportunity to secure a more favorable image by returning to their roots and acting in concert with principles that most of them already hold.

The examination of principles and morality helps to answer “why” criminal justice reform nestles into a renewed conservative identity, but this does little to detail how such reforms will sustain this identity and propel it forward.  For these answers, it’s necessary to look at the problems that afflict each stage of the criminal justice cycle and how conservatives can reap political rewards from remedial action.  With the preamble of the Republican Party platform touting “limited government” and the “rights of the people” as bedrock principles, there is perhaps no better place to begin than pretrial jail reform.  Of the roughly 615,000 individuals held in our local jails at this very moment, around 465,000 are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted of whatever crime has been alleged.  Too often, these incarcerated individuals are not the most dangerous, but the poorest—those unable to afford bond. Further, the incarcerated are hardly the only ones to suffer from this loss of freedom.  Even a short stay in jail raises the risk of criminal behavior after an individual’s release, meaning that unnecessary jailing is a public safety matter of concern to all.  We also pay dearly when we lock up so many of our fellow Americans, with the price tag of a single day in jail as high as $571.27 in some jurisdictions.

July 6, 2018 at 10:57 AM | Permalink


The Romans were on the verge of the scientific discoveries of the Renaissance. had Christianity not destroyed them from within, their advances would not have been stopped. Christ, if real, was the bad guy. The Romans were the good guys.

Imagine where we would be without a 1000 years of Dark Ages.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 6, 2018 11:55:52 AM

che idiota

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Jul 6, 2018 3:12:11 PM

This commentary says a lot about why the Republican "establishment" lost control of the Republican Party. While it may be consistent with the thoughts of the conservative intelligentsia, my experience with voters in my state is that these views are completely foreign to the conservatism of Republican voters in rural areas and small towns.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 6, 2018 5:23:35 PM

well, tmm, thus was not at all the tune of the Republican "establishment" throughout most of the last half-century, except when a libertarian-leaning official (like the Pauls) got a moment in the establishment sun. The tough-on-crime talk of AG Sessions is actually much more representative of the establishment, but in this area the libertarian wing is starting to show some great growth and power. Whether that will extended to all aspects of the GOP base remains to be seen.

Posted by: Doug B | Jul 6, 2018 5:51:00 PM

Is the R Street Institute in Washington DC? If it is, the article is dismissed. Swamp people, rent seeking interests are being promoted.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 6, 2018 7:47:21 PM

Criminal solved the re-entry problem, became a lawyer. Thieves will become bankers. Pedophiles will become daycare teachers. Arsonists will become firemen.


Posted by: David Behar | Jul 6, 2018 7:57:30 PM

As a conservative myself, I believe we need to focus punishment on the right things. Anything that involves intentional physical harm to another person, or even threatening such harm, needs to be punished with extreme severity, up to and including the death penalty, which in particular should be applied to attempted mass murder, regardless of whether or not anyone is actually hurt. Any type of physically dangerous robbery should be punished heavily -- more heavily than is generally the case today.

Consensual crimes should, for the most part, not be crimes at all. This is particularly true of drug crimes. Let's be honest. What we are criminalizing with drugs is not the potential harm to users; it's the high. Bleach, for example, is legal.

I think punishments for embezzlement and the like are generally reasonable.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jul 7, 2018 8:27:48 AM

"The inherent dignity of every human life is another tenet of the Republican Party that lives on in the conservative movement today." But we are going to avoid talking about how this principle and the alleged love of "limited government" apply to the death penalty.

Posted by: Paul | Jul 7, 2018 10:40:20 AM

Paul, that wasn't particularly in the spirit of Doug's blog, which frequently invites people to comment on their own opinions. Reasoned disagreement is one thing; sniping is something else altogether. If you want to try reasoned disagreement, here are some people who richly deserved a quick end but avoided it under our system: Richard Reid, Umar Abdulmutallab, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Lee Malvo.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jul 7, 2018 11:00:08 AM

What tmm said. That is my experience too.

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 7, 2018 12:38:04 PM

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