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?
Over the last two decades, religious conservatives have increasingly come to see prisoners as people worthy of compassion and capable of redemption. “These people have committed crimes, but they’re still human beings, created in the image of God. Can we help them restore what’s left of their lives?” asks Tony Perkins, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. Perkins has doubted the efficacy of incarceration since serving as a guard in a Louisiana lockup as a young man. Though that experience also made him skeptical of jailhouse conversions, Perkins said, religious outreach behind bars has the benefit of making prisoners seem like real people— much as the pro-life movement has done with unborn children. “As more and more churches are involved in prison ministries, they begin the process of rehumanizing the criminal.”
Meanwhile, the tide of professional opinion is turning away from what had been a depressing consensus that warehousing prisoners was the best society could do. For many years, the hope that “rehabilitation” could change people’s behavior was dismissed as a liberal fantasy. The role of prisons was much simpler: to incapacitate reprobates and deter opportunists. The dean of this school of thought, former Harvard and University of California, Los Angeles, professor James Q. Wilson (who died this year), put it like this: “Many people, neither wicked nor innocent, but watchful, dissembling, and calculating of their chances, ponder our reaction to wickedness as a clue to what they might profitably do.” Social service approaches to criminal “wickedness” not only did not work, but they symbolized a society unwilling to stand up against violations of the law. Increase incarceration, conservatives argued, and potential criminals will get the message.
But in recent years, experts in criminal justice have become more optimistic about alternatives to prison. A promising example is Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (the HOPE program, now hopscotching to other states; see Mark A. R. Kleiman, “Jail Break,” Washington Monthly, July/August 2009). HOPE has been shown to significantly cut drug offending by hitting users who are on parole or probation with swift, certain, and moderated sanctions, such as a few days of jail time, rather than arbitrary and draconian parole revocations. New technologies from rapid-result drug tests to GPS monitoring have also bred optimism, and professionals are even beginning to feel better about their ability to predict an offender’s risk of recidivism. Because these approaches emphasize control more than therapy, they don’t seem squishy or soft on crime, even as they make it easier to let criminals out of prison.
The world has also changed in ways that favor fresh thinking. In the 1990s, Democrats diluted the Republican electoral advantage on crime by pushing their own set of tough measures. Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton oversaw the execution of a brain-damaged convict during his 1992 presidential campaign, and once elected president he pushed through a cast-iron crime bill that combined longer sentences, restrictions on gun purchases, and more cops on the street. While the subsequent drop in crime gave the GOP fodder to argue that punitive policies work, it has also drawn the venom out of the issue. And since the 1990s, terrorism has displaced crime as the nation’s top security preoccupation and honeypot for law-and-order zealots. If you consider all these issues together, it makes sense that conservatives have more space to rethink their positions on crime. And so, with jailers newly suspect, inmates ripe for redemption, and alternative discipline ascendant, conservatives have decided prisons are a lot like schools: hugely expensive, inefficient, and in need of root-and-branch reform.
Such second thoughts are creating the first significant opening in years for a criminal justice overhaul. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can reform the system alone given the continuing fear of being tarred with the “soft on crime” label, said Gene Guerrero, a policy analyst at the Washington office of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. It can only happen, he said, “if there is real leadership from both sides and if the reforms are developed and move forward on a bipartisan basis.”
Still, it’s conservatives who bring the most muscle to the job. A handful of liberal organizations have valiantly kept alive the argument for reform even through the dark days of the 1980s and ’90s—places like the American Civil Liberties Union, Open Society Foundations, and the Public Welfare Foundation. By and large, however, it is conservative institutions who now pay the most attention to criminal justice, Guerrero said. In rare cases, Democratic politicians have proved willing to take up the cause, as when Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm directed an overhaul of that state’s parole system during her first term— though her second-term push for broader reform legislation fizzled (see Luke Mogelson, “Prison Break,” Washington Monthly, November/December 2010). But most Democrats are still terrified of appearing timid before voters and are therefore loath to lead the way. At best, they can be persuaded to go along if the right gives them cover.
The right’s belated awakening to America’s incarceration crisis may seem little more than an obvious extension of libertarian and socially conservative philosophies. But logic rarely determines how movements put together their various ideological commitments. Making and changing positions is tough, entrepreneurial political work, especially when long-held, electorally successful ideas are being called into question.
Few people have done as much to subvert the conservative orthodoxy on crime as Pat Nolan, a former California state legislator who now works at the jailhouse ministry Prison Fellowship. Called “the most important person to make any of this happen” by Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Nolan has been so effective as a revisionist precisely because he was weaned on the traditional politics of law and order.
Nolan grew up in LA’s Crenshaw Boulevard neighborhood during the 1950s. “Everyone in my family and all of our neighbors had been victims of crime,” says Nolan. “I came from a family that was pretty pro-police, feeling as [though] they were kind of beleaguered.” When his family moved to nearby Burbank, Nolan signed up for the Police Explorers, a group for kids interested in law enforcement careers. He also joined Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative activist group that rallied behind Barry Goldwater in 1964. As a Republican California state assemblyman in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Nolan helped push through some of the nation’s most draconian sentencing laws. While he did visit prisons to investigate conditions there, he recalls, “I was very much the ‘We need more prisons’ type.”
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