How Far Will The Conservative ‘Prison Break’ Go?

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A remarkable shift by conservatives on crime policy has fueled criminal justice reforms in several deep red states.

Now the question is whether an unexpected rise in crime—and politicians like Donald Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR)—will slow the trend markedly.

That was the issue on the table yesterday at a discussion sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., of a new book called “Prison Break” (Oxford University Press, 2016) by political scientists David Dagan and Steven M. Teles of Johns Hopkins University.

Starting in the 1960s, conservative stalwarts like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan led a tough-on-crime movement that among other things made the United States the world incarceration leader, with more than two million people behind bars.

Dagan and Teles tell the backroom story of how serious “cracks in the wall” (one of their chapter titles) developed in the last decade or so.

Two leaders of the movement were former Nixon aide Charles Colson, described by the authors as  a “towering figure in evangelical circles” who turned to prison reform after serving time himself in the Watergate scandal. He was helped by Pat Nolan, a conservative California legislator who went to federal prison for a campaign finance violation.

The book credits Colson and Nolan with “opening conservatives’ eyes to the pathologies of the criminal justice system and making concern with the degradation of prisoners a legitimately conservative cause.”

Among their allies in more recent years have been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative crusader Grover Norquist, former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese, and governors such as Georgia’s Nathan Deal and Texas’ Rick Perry.

How did this happen? Author Teles attributes it to a combination of factors, including the drop in crime rates over the last two decades that made crime less of a divisive political issue, the high cost of incarceration, and conservatives’ realization that reducing reliance on prisons coincided with their “anti-statism” philosophy.

Practical politics was at work, too. Republicans came to dominate some southern states like Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina so decisively that it wasn’t necessary to maintain an “anti-crime” brand to differentiate themselves from Democrats.

One of yesterday’s commentators, Vikrant Reddy of the Charles Koch Institute, affirmed the accuracy of  “Prison Break.” Reddy worked with Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Right on Crime organization to spread the word nationally of how Texas, once considered to be the toughest of the tough-on-crime states, stopped building prisons in 2007 and invested in alternatives like strengthening probation, parole, and drug courts.

Reddy, Teles and other speakers wondered aloud whether conservatives’ embrace of prison reform would persist behind what they called the “low-hanging fruit” of imprisoning fewer non-violent offenders, which has been the centerpiece of many of the changes in state laws.

Trump’s Anti-Crime Rhetoric

Republican presidential candidate Trump has not staked out a clear position on sentencing, but so far he has taken a strident anti-crime stance and has deplored the early release of many federal prisoners serving terms for drug crimes.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Cotton and other Republicans have forced the watering-down of a Senate bill to reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, and continued opposition threatens to kill the bill entirely in a shortened election-year legislative session. The Republican-dominated House has taken some action on the committee level but it is not certain that major legislation will pass this year.

Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, another speaker yesterday, noted that reductions in prison populations nationwide have been modest so far and that “we really have to reach violent offenders” to achieve any significant cut in incarceration.

That theme was echoed by Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, who declared that the “records of people in prison are very serious.” Mac Donald noted that only a tiny fraction of violent crimes in the U.S. leads to a term behind bars, calling prison a “lifetime achievement award” for repeat offenders. She said it was not correct to say that the “war on drugs” has caused the largest increase in the inmate population.

In MacDonald’s view, the estimated $43 billion that the federal government and the states spend on housing prisoners is a “pretty good bargain compared with the cost of crime.” She acknowledged that prison is a “squalid, spirit-killing enterprise,” but quickly added that “crime is worse.”

One major challenge to any major reduction in inmates is that it’s far from clear that alternatives to prison, such as closer probation and parole supervision, work very well in reducing recidivism, Mac Donald said.

Teles agreed, saying, “I have serious questions about the effectiveness of alternatives, including drug courts.”

Still, “even modest reforms appear to whet the appetite of conservative policymakers for more,” Dagan and Teles say. They cite, for example, the increasing attention to the many Americans in jails, “which are stuffed full of people in pretrial detention, in de facto mental hospitalization, and in petty sentences on misdemeanor charges.”

It would also help the reform campaign, the authors write, if more wealthy conservatives beyond the Koch brothers would spend money on justice issues.

In any case, bringing U.S. incarceration to a reasonable level will be a decades-long project, Dagan and Teles conclude. “Such an effort can only be sustained if liberals and conservatives alike come to see it as an extension of their most fundamental values,” they write. “We are still a long way from that level of commitment.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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