Why conservatives are learning to hate prisons

Libertarian Marc Levin

By Alan Bean

While conservative politicians remain hesitant about issues like immigration reform or gay rights, the conservative shift away from tough-on-crime politics has been dramatic.

Part of the pressure has come from the Religious Right.  It started with prison ministry.  Evangelicals entered the prisons in hope of converting dark souls, but were impressed by the humanity of the men and women they encountered.

And then there is the fiscal side of the ledger.  Mass incarceration is hideously expensive.

Finally, we mustn’t forget the political considerations.  Republican strategists realize that Southern Strategy appeals to white racial resentment, though still a marvelous mechanism for firing up the base, have a distinct downside.  Republicans can still win large majorities at the state level (at least in the South) with minimal support from African Americans and Latinos; but if you want to win the White House, monochrome support is no longer enough.  You don’t need 50% of the minority vote to win; but 35% would be nice.

Which explains why Rand Paul, the son of a libertarian icon with close ties to racist organizations, was inspired to travel into the predominantly Black west end of Louisville looking for votes.  Paul was changed by what he heard.  Consider this excerpt from a lengthy New York Times article:

Some Republicans want to take the changes even further. Legislation that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is drafting would restore voting rights for some nonviolent felons and convert some drug felonies to misdemeanors.

Mr. Paul, who is a possible presidential candidate in 2016 and has been courting constituencies like African-Americans and young people who feel alienated by the Republican Party, said it was only a matter of time before more Republicans joined him.

“I’m not afraid of appearing to be not conservative enough,” he said, explaining that he got the idea for his legislation by talking with black constituents in the western part of Louisville who complained to him that criminal convictions were often crosses to bear for years, keeping them from voting and getting jobs.

Why is conservative support for criminal justice support so important?

Between 1980 and 2000, Democrats tried to out-tough their Republican opponents by moving sharply to the right on prisons and sentencing issues.  It didn’t work.  No matter how tough Democrats like Bill Clinton and Texas Governor Ann Richards became, the Republicans proved to be tougher.  The result was a punitive death spiral detached from social reality.

It didn’t help, of course, that violent crime figures were skyrocketing through much of this period.  With crime rates at historic lows, politicians have a much harder time frightening the public.  Most voters think violent crime is far worse than it actually is because falling crime rates aren’t considered newsworthy; but the lack of screaming headlines has altered the playing field.

Political progressives sometimes assume that mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences can be blamed on Republicans, but it just ain’t so.  The prison-building mania from which we are slowly emerging was a bi-partisan disaster.  A recent conversation in the Texas Monthly between reporter Nate Blakeslee (who cut his reportorial teeth in Tulia, Texas) and Marc Levin, a libertarian policy wonk, touched on this issue.  (Notice how Levin makes criminal justice reform part of the small government conservative agenda):

NB: On this issue of why conservatives are a good choice to lead this movement, I think some of our readers would say, “Yes, it ought to be conservatives who are doing this unwinding, because they are the ones that wound it up in the first place.” If you guys are moving, as you say, the pendulum back towards the middle, where it belongs, is there a sense in which some of what you’re undoing was done by fellow conservatives? The Bill Bennetts of the world?


ML: Well, I think the winding was done by both sides. You definitely had Michael Dukakis build a ton of prisons when he was governor of Massachusetts. Mario Cuomo built a ton. So, it was very much a bipartisan build up. I mean, Bill Clinton famously went down to watch an execution in Arkansas when he was president, and I can’t imagine Obama doing that or even Bill Clinton doing that if he were president today. I think part of it was that each side was trying to out-tough the other. Maybe some liberal politicians believed in it, maybe some of them just did it because it was politically necessary.


We did a poll of Texans a couple of months ago that basically showed 80 percent support across the board for all these reforms for alternatives for nonviolent offenders. So, when you have 80 percent, that’s strong among every demographic.


But what’s interesting is that that [support] was the strongest among people who identify as tea party voters. I think what you’re seeing is the skepticism of government that animates the conservative movement, particularly on the tea party or libertarian end. Through the revelations about the NSA or things like the Michael Morton case, people have started to realize that a lot of the things that the government does wrong in, for example, health care or education, it also does wrong in criminal justice. And you can argue that when there’s a case like Michael Morton, there’s a worse consequence in criminal justice when government messes up than anywhere else, because you lose potentially your life and at the least, your liberty.


It may strike you as unfortunate that liberal politicians weren’t able to move the needle on criminal justice reform until the conservatives decided to get involved, but that’s the way electoral politics works.  If your sole focus is getting your team on board the best you can hope for is gridlock, and if the wind is blowing from the wrong direction, the consequences can be horrific.  When both parties line up behind a good idea change happens.  It won’t be fast–there is simply too much money invested in the status quo for that–but a change is gonna come, O yes it will.