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November 13, 2012 8:47 AM The Conservative War on Prisons and the Future of “Bipartisan” Reform

By Paul Glastris

For decades, conservative politicians cleaned up at the polls by championing tough-on-crime policies that swelled America’s prison population to gulag-like levels. But in the last few years, outside the view of the national press, a grassroots counterrevolution has occurred, led by right-wing policy intellectuals, that is fundamentally changing conservative attitudes about crime and punishment. Instead of promoting harsher sentences as a bulwark against disorder, more and more conservatives are challenging the prison-industrial complex as a statist abomination that wastes taxpayer dollars and countenances homosexual rape.

In the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles chart this unexpected sea-change in conservative thinking, explaining not only how it creates the first significant opening in years for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, but also acts as a potential model for how progressive reform is likely to happen in an era of extreme partisanship. Most of us assume that bipartisanship involves middle-of-the-road politicians brokering “center-out” compromises. But if the new conservative thinking on crime is any indication, progress on tough policy issues will most likely come not from squishy moderates working in a rapidly-vanishing center, but from partisans rethinking their old positions, for their own reasons, guided by their own ideological lights.

Read a sneak preview of “The Conservative War on Prisons” here.

Paul Glastris is editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • Domage on November 13, 2012 9:05 AM:

    Conservatives may be rethinking the prison-industrial complex, but I doubt Republican politicians are. There are waaaaay too many campaign dollars to be gotten from the like of Corrections Corp of America. And it is much, much easier to demagogue a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" agenda than to begin seriously addressing crime and punishment in this country.

  • martin on November 13, 2012 9:22 AM:

    They could just be worried too many of their colleagues are heading for prison.

    I'll give G Gordon Liddy credit, his time in prison made him an advocate of prison reform.

    Totally coincidentally, colleagues.8 lspelle is my captcha

  • Perspecticus on November 13, 2012 9:28 AM:

    "Instead of promoting harsher sentences as a bulwark against disorder, more and more conservatives are challenging the prison-industrial complex as a statist abomination that wastes taxpayer dollars and countenances homosexual rape."

    Isn't it most likely that the "change" in viewpoint is based on a promotion of for-profit prisons?

  • golack on November 13, 2012 9:58 AM:

    Interesting...

    Most "hard right" positions are counter factual and usually not even self-consistent.

    So does this mean they'll stop trying to privatize prisons and look for excuses to lock up any one looking "foreign" to fill up the cells--on the taxpayers dime?

  • Leopold Von Ranke on November 13, 2012 10:16 AM:

    Of course the conservatives are in bed with the private prison industry, which is all about filling "bed space" for profit and nothing else. The hope for reducing lunacy in our judicial/"correctional" system lies in prosecutors and judges exercising discretion as allowed by law and ethics, and defense counsel making good arguments.

  • c u n d gulag on November 13, 2012 10:20 AM:

    You want to cut costs?
    STOP privatizing prisons!

    Also too - stop privatizing the military!

  • boatboy_srq on November 13, 2012 10:34 AM:

    Whodathunk that Corrections Corporation of America was a stealth arm of Teh Hom'seckshul Agenda.

  • emjayay on November 13, 2012 11:52 AM:

    Big legislation has often come from a confluence of interests of the left and right. Not from each side having the same motives and goals, but maybe completely different ones that somehow end up supporting the same thing.

    Liberals wanted futuristic "internal improvements" as they were called in the olden days and conservatives wanted a way to move masses of troops and convoys efficiently around the country in case Martians or someone attacked, so we got the National Defense Highway System, or National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Conservatives wanted to build H-bomb equipped ICBMs and liberals wanted to explore the solar system and do cool space stuff and (mostly shared goal) everyone wanted to beat the USSR at anything, so we got NASA.

    Liberals want to reduce prison population because it's a stupid counterproductive world embarassment and supermax imprisonment is cruel and unusual punishment constituting torture, all taking away tons of money we could be spending on schools and universities.

    Conservatives want to reduce prison population so they can lower income taxes on millionaires and afford to get rid of the estate tax. So who knows maybe something may happen.

    Too bad the right wing isn't all real libertarians and we could all agree to get rid of all recreational drug laws, which would mostly do the trick. And also halfway at least fix Mexico and Afganistan.

  • SadOldVet on November 13, 2012 12:51 PM:

    Trick question...

    What should we do if we want to:
    - dramatically reduce prison populations (and costs)
    - eliminate the overwhelming source of income for gangs
    - increase tax revenues for states

    The not so trick answer is to legalize almost all drugs and regulate and the tax them.

  • low-tech cyclist on November 13, 2012 1:17 PM:

    "progress on tough policy issues will most likely come not from squishy moderates working in a rapidly-vanishing center, but from conservative partisans rethinking their old positions, for their own reasons, guided by their own ideological lights."

    Fixed that for you, Paul.

    Remember that when liberals rethink their old positions and accept conservative means of accomplishing liberal ends (Obamacare and cap-and-trade come to mind), conservatives immediately abandon the positions that liberals have come to concur with.

    Not that I'm expecting much of this even from the right side of the spectrum. By and large, either they believe what they believe because that's where the money is, or because they're simply dug in too deep to their own alternate reality.

  • Leopold Von Ranke on November 13, 2012 4:42 PM:

    Think you got it right (no pun intended)here, Mr. Glastris. If you discount the "Great Awakenings" in US history, which were fundamentally (no pun intended) different from what has been going on over the last hundred years or so in Americo-Christian religion, this stuff waxes and wanes. A little ecumenism here, a little premillenialism there, a dusting of dominionism to frost the cake. The Fundamentalists (evangelical is a misnomer) seem to be on a thirty-year equivalent of a four-year-old's sugar high right now. Won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

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