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Seven Reasons Conservatives Are Leading Criminal Justice Reform


Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece on criminal-justice reform. The title pretty much says it all: “Conservatives Are Still Trouncing Liberals on Prison Reform.” That’s the buzz on prison reform, which we find repeated in major news outlets like Mother Jones and the Daily Beast. Criminal justice reform is happening! But wait, it’s not what you think. Conservatives are doing it. Miraculous, no?

Not really, actually. We all understand the reasoning, of course. Liberals are supposed to be the nicey-nice ones who want to love and rehabilitate everybody; conservatives can hardly wait to throw away the key. Liberals are the ones who denounce mass incarceration as a racist, classist stain upon the soul of our nation. Conservatives go on issuing reminders that regardless of your age, race, class, or sex, crime doesn’t (and shouldn’t) pay.

Nevertheless, it’s conservatives who are pragmatically implementing policy changes that are shrinking inmate populations and in some cases actually closing prisons. This makes perfect sense. Justice reform should be a conservative initiative, and conservatives who aren’t yet on board consider whether their views on crime might need a refresh. Though they aren’t as sympathetic to the sob stories, conservatives are the ones with the proper motivations and philosophy to make our justice system better. Here’s why.

1. Prisons Are Expensive

And who cares most about that? Conservatives are ever the nation’s watchdogs when it comes to wasteful spending.  Thus, we notice that federal corrections budgets have increased 56 percent since 2001. We care that prisons are soaking up about 85 percent of most state corrections budgets… and that those budgets have increased fourfold over the past 20 years. We also recognize that our nation is already facing a major fiscal crisis, and simply can’t afford to ignore government bloat. Saving money isn’t the only reason for reforming our prison system, but it’s a good one.

2. Conservatives Love Freedom

We’d much rather see people order their own lives than have government do it for them. No conservative should be happy to see large numbers of his compatriots under direct government control.

No conservative should be happy to see large numbers of his compatriots under direct government control.

Some people, of course, can’t be trusted to be free. They’re dangerous. Everyone cares about preserving public safety, which is why the “tough on crime” campaigns of the 1990s addressed the problem of rising crime with harsher penalties designed to restore the rule of law. But while these initiatives arguably worked (crime is down), we’ve reached something of a point of diminishing returns, such that beefed-up sentences and skyrocketing corrections budgets no longer buy us significant rewards. It’s time to look for responsible, practical ways to “slim down” our corrections system.

As conservatives, we should always prefer to see people living free, independent lives, to the extent that this is possible. Even when it isn’t, a less-invasive government program is (all else being equal) clearly preferable to one that gives the state ever more power to control, intimidate, and impose its will on the general population. Some people do need to be in prison, but incarceration should be understood as a serious punishment, to be used only when truly necessary. With approximately 1 percent of our population behind bars, it’s hard to believe that we can’t do better.

3. Conservatives Are Serious about Personal Responsibility

At the same time, we believe in redemption. Both are critical components of successful justice reform.

If we excuse serious misbehavior on the grounds that the offender was materially disadvantaged or had a bad childhood, we send the message that offenders are something less than rational.

When people do bad things, they need to be held responsible. This is critical to upholding the integrity of the law, but it’s also absolutely necessary for the offender’s own moral growth. A basic condition of being a morally responsible person is that you have to take responsibility for your own actions. If we excuse serious misbehavior on the grounds that the offender was materially disadvantaged or had a bad childhood, we send the message (to him and to other possible offenders) that he’s something less than rational. He’s not a mature morally responsible being so much as a machine liable to malfunction. He literally can’t help himself.

Unhappy people can often be persuaded to accept this view of their own behavior. They come to see their mistakes, not as an aberration to be eliminated (“that’s not who I want to be”), but rather as a bug in their personal programming over which they have no control. Shame is painful, and excuses can provide a welcome refuge from that shame. Liberals, with their longstanding attraction to social models of crime, are particularly prone to offer this kind of relief, particularly to criminal offenders from impoverished backgrounds or from minority groups that liberals like to champion.

The social arguments are more compelling than some like to admit. Certainly, people with bad, negligent parents are far more likely to get into trouble. A sociologist walking through a maternity ward could (given some basic facts about family background and so forth) make some excellent guesses about which children were most likely to end up incarcerated, and which to end up earning six figures. At the end of the day, the playing field of life is never totally level. Still this sobering fact remains: when we excuse wrongdoing as “society’s fault,” this cripples the individual’s efforts towards personal development. If my therapist tells me that I can’t help myself… why try?

Conservatives are the right people to reform criminal justice, because unlike so many of their liberal counterparts, they fully understand the necessity of holding people accountable for their mistakes. Getting right on crime doesn’t mean letting people off. It means giving them a chance to atone for their missteps, and do better.

4. Conservatives Know Justice Should Be Colorblind

This is a huge stumbling block for liberals. It’s understandable that they would be sensitive about it, because in prisons we see the unlovely fruits of so many of their favorite policies.

We’re not going to fix our justice system by inserting racial biases where they obviously don’t belong.

In your average prison, the inmate population does not look like America. Blacks and whites are represented in very nearly equal numbers; each make up about 40 percent of our inmates. That’s wildly different from the general U.S. population, in which whites represent 64 percent and blacks 13 percent. Statistically, about one in three African American males will spend some period of their lives behind bars.

Should we be concerned about this? Of course. Those numbers obviously speak to some severe cultural malady, and all patriotic Americans should be anxious to understand what’s gone wrong. Still, uncomfortable as it may be, the most immediate explanation for black incarceration rates appears to be… black criminality.  And we’re not going to fix our justice system by inserting racial biases where they obviously don’t belong.

That’s not something liberals like to hear. They spend a lot of time manufacturing comparisons between modern penitentiaries and eighteenth-century Southern plantations. It’s hard to think seriously about criminal justice reform when you’re that reality-averse.

5. Conservatives Value Family and Community

One fundamental problem with incarceration is its tendency to remove people from environments that might facilitate reform, placing them instead in the company of other offenders who are likely to have a negative effect on their character. Effective probation and parole programs (sometimes combined with ankle monitoring or other technological solutions) often make it possible to keep families together, and enable communities to be involved in the process of restitution and reform. Fewer broken families? More community-based solutions to problems? Sounds like conservative thinking to me.

6. Conservatives Are Eager to See Victims Compensated through Just Restitution

Too often, victims are ignored in our deliberations about criminal justice. That’s unfair, because they are the ones who most obviously deserve solicitude and respect. It’s also unfortunate, because working with victims can be a particularly effective form of rehabilitation for offenders as well. It’s good to be reminded that our offenses have hurt someone, not just a faceless system.

Victim relief often comes in the form of financial restitution, but inmates have a very limited capacity to pay this. Probationers can do much more by way of compensating their victims directly. For less-serious crimes, mediation is often an effective way of compensating and empowering victims, while also giving offenders a better chance at improving their lives.

7. Conservatives Care Whether Policies Actually Work

Many liberals are perplexed when they see conservatives working to change policies that they themselves once helped to implement. For example, “truth in sentencing” policies (which include mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike policies) were broadly supported by conservatives in the ’90s. Today, those are the laws reform-minded conservatives would like to strike.

I don’t see this as an egg-on-face moment so much as a chance to show that, unlike so many progressives, we’re willing to walk away from strategies that aren’t working. Public policy is a world of imperfections. Reasonable people are prepared to make adjustments in light of new evidence and observed results. That’s the goal of getting “right on crime,” and it’s something we should welcome as an excellent example of sound, strategic, conservative thinking.