How Conservatives Advocate for Sentencing Reform, Cutting Prison Rolls


Deciding that the nation's prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, many conservative leaders are beginning to attack it—and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed, political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University write in the Washington Monthly. Dagan and Teles theorize that this could become “an example of how bipartisan policy breakthroughs are still possible in our polarized age.” The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), long a proponent of privatizing prisons, no longer has an official position on that issue (nor does it have any prison corporations left as members). Instead, say Dagan and Teles, it is pushing bills that would reduce prison populations. For fiscal hawks, the point now is not to incarcerate more efficiently or profitably, but to incarcerate less.

In 2007, ALEC hired Michael Hough, a friend of Prison Fellowship’s Pat Nolan, a former California legislator who served prison time, to run its criminal justice task force. Nolan persuaded ALEC to endorse the Second Chance Act for prisoner re-entry. Within a few years, Hough, Nolan, and Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden had brought ALEC to the point of pushing out model bills based on proposals borrowed from the Pew Center on the States, which has been dispatching teams of sentencing wonks to state capitals to help reformers develop specific plans. All this work was done through the same ALEC committee whose advocacy for “stand-your-ground” laws prompted a backlash in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing. ALEC announced that it would disband the committee, but, in fact, it ended up giving the panel a new mandate. The committee now focuses exclusively on sentencing reform.

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