While some believe inmates languish in luxurious settings, with too many creature comforts, prison reformers paint a much bleaker picture of the conditions plaguing inmates in federal and state corrections facilities. Penalties like solitary confinement, for example, are seen as inhumane and ill-suited for rehabilitating criminals.
Wherever you stand on prison reform, it is hard to deny a link between the way we function as a society on the outside, and the way we mete out punishment for those serving time on the inside. Compassion and empathy are central to human interactions outside prison walls, so they should also play roles in the way inmates are rehabilitated. Until we establish effective programs to break the cycles of crime and recidivism, natural order will continue to be elusive on the streets. Viewed in this light, prison reform holds real potential for supporting a more peaceful society.
Balance is Essential to effective Corrections Policy
Corrections systems are tasked with protecting law-abiding citizens from harm, by incarcerating offenders. But the system is also responsible to maintain a balancing act between punishment and rehabilitation, which are not always administered equitably. The best outcomes are seen when prisoners have opportunities to better themselves, so that positive contributions to society become distinct possibilities for those committed to legitimacy once they are released. (more…)
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.
Mineral Wells is a Texas town of 17,000 a little over fifty miles due west of Fort Worth. The Texas legislature passed a budget for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that will require the closure of two prisons and the Mineral Wells Unit is on the list. Local officials say they will fight to the last ditch and the last breath to keep their precious prison.
This isn’t about public safety–the state of Texas has decided it doesn’t need the prison–it’s about jobs.
All of which raises a disturbing question. Was the prison boom that transformed Texas in the 1990s about pork barrel politics rather than public safety?
Back in the day, nobody wanted a prison in their back yard; but hard times in the hinterland changed “you’re not building a prison in my back yard,” to “we’ll provide generous subsidies if somebody–the state or a private prison company–is willing to build us a big house.” In towns like Mineral Wells and Tulia, the war on drugs, tough on crime politics and prison construction were all about helping little towns survive an agricultural crisis that started in the mid-1970s and shows no signs of letting up.
In the process, small-government Texas became the nation’s biggest welfare state.
It is unwise and immoral to base public safety decisions on the economic needs of isolated farming communities, but that is precisely what we have done. Listen to the public officials in the Star-Telegram article below lamenting the loss of their darling prison and you realize that our nation’s great prison boom spread a horrible case of welfare dependency across the American heartland.
Politics is behind the cancerous growth of the prison-industrial complex. Tough on crime rhetoric only works on the stump if it translates into legislation after the election. Politicians run on their records and everyone had a vested interest in establishing the right kind of record on public safety. This article in CQ gives the impression that Democrats have long been in support of ending mandatory minimums and introducing lighter sentences. It would be more accurate to say that some Democrats would have embraced the politics of compassion and common sense had that been an option. But since the mid-1970s, it hasn’t been an option.
The ship of fools that brought us the prison-industrial complex is beginning to turn. Big ships don’t turn quickly. In fact, the federal prison system has been growing in recent years, largely thanks to nasty immigration policies shaped by post 9-11 hysteria. But Republican politicians are in search of a kinder-gentler face (no one wants to look like the guy in the cartoon), so the reform agenda has a chance. How far this new mood takes us remains uncertain. Everything depends on how far and how fast Republican politicians are willing to move. This is a Nixon Goes to China moment. Democrats are still too fearful of political backlash to take the real risks reform demands.
Congressional Democrats have argued for years that too many low-level drug offenders are locked away in federal prisons and that mandatory-sentencing laws disproportionately harm minorities and tie judges’ hands. Lately, they have been joined in those criticisms by Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party-backed Republican with White House aspirations. (more…)
I confess that I rarely feature articles in the Weekly Standard. A few years ago, a lead article in the NeoCon magazine accused me of inventing the Jena 6 story out of whole cloth. I was not amused.
But criminal justice reformers ignore the conservative movement at their own peril. At heart, America remains a deeply conservative country. Ergo, if you can’t get a few prominent conservatives to sign on to a reform agenda it’s going nowhere. In fact, given the baleful impact of culture war polarization, associating the liberal brand with an idea, however noble, can be the kiss of death. In this WS piece, libertarian Eli Lehrer argues that the Republicans have become the party of prison reform. The vision is limited, he admits, but that’s what makes it work.
I have long argued that true reform will require an eclectic mix of conservative and liberal ideas. Still, any move away from mass incarceration is welcome, and there are plenty of good reasons on both sides of the ideological divide for making that move. AGB
Michael Hough—a second-term Republican state legislator from Frederick County, Md.—is about as conservative as blue-state legislators come. He played a prominent role in opposing the state’s new gay marriage law, holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, and received a 100 percent score from the state’s business lobby. (more…)
Let’s talk for a moment about prisons. First the House and Senate have both agreed in the base budget to fund 5% employee raises for correctional workers. Please don’t start slashing at those wage hikes to pay for prison units you don’t need. Including the extra money to bail out Jones County, the House decision to buy a prison instead of closing two will cost Texans an extra $116.8 million in incarceration costs over the biennium for those line items compared to the Senate budget. Close the privately-run Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells pre-parole units as suggested by Senate-side budget writers and tell the folks in Jones County they’re on their own, just like so many other counties that built speculative prisons and jails they now can’t fill. (more…)
Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin are unimpressed by arguments that associate high rates of American incarceration with white racism. In fact, race hardly figures in their argument. Liberals may not have created the high rates of violence that sparked a turn to punitive policies, they say, but liberals didn’t lift a finger to stop the killing.
Reddy and Levin aren’t even convinced that the shift to mass incarceration was a bad idea back in the day. But with crime rates plunging nationwide, they ask, does it make sense to keep pumping billions of dollars into prisons that aren’t making us safer?
The authors attribute about a quarter of the drop in crime to high rates of incarceration, and I suspect they have it about right. But that means 75% of the drop in crime has nothing to do with high rates of incarceration. Let’s lock up the violent criminals, they say, but find less expensive ways of dealing with non-violent offenders that involve less tax money and less government. To their credit, they realize that everybody suffers when felons who have served their time can’t find decent jobs. (more…)