Conservatives get wise to prison reform

Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had its usual denouncements of the welfare state and parade of presidential candidates, but the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery writes that “the most important moment” of the gathering was a panel on criminal justice reform.

The panel included Texas Gov. Rick Perry and alpha anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and Lowery says there’s a genuine appetite for change on the right:

Advertisement
On issues of sentencing reform and prison recidivism, Republicans — especially several governors in southern states — have been leaders, earning praise from prison reform groups from both sides of the aisle for efforts to save money by implementing rehabilitation programs and curbing skyrocketing prison costs. In fact, a non-partisan study issued last year about how Massachusetts, which is undisputed as one of the bluest states in the union, could cut prison costs, credited Republican-led states with how they've tackled prison reform.

Not all Republicans are off the “tough on crime” habit, but several governors (from both parties) touted rehabilitation efforts in State of the State speeches this year, and conservatives such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have called for the restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts as one way to re-integrate them into society.

Criminal justice reform may also help the Republican Party’s image among urban and non-white voters — at least, more so than cutting anti-poverty programs in the name of promoting the “dignity of work.”

The American Conservative’s Leah Libresco was also impressed by the CPAC panel, likening it to a “Nixon goes to China” moment. She noted that Perry's participation may surprise those who associate him with an unwavering support for the death penalty (something that Southern conservatives, at least, are unllkely to abandon any time soon):

Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project, which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation.

The moderator and director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, Pat Nolan, argued that restrictions on felons had gone beyond those required for public safety, pointing out that “barber” is among the many professions that felons are barred from entering. Hair cutting is, ironically enough, one of the few skills a convict is very likely to learn on the inside.

According to Libresco’s account of the panel, Norquist said that red states may have an advantage in enacting reforms because conservatives would be more suspicious of rehabilitation programs in, say, Vermont.

But Democrats are not going to cede the reform issue to the GOP. NPR’s Brian Mann reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing to restore free college classes for prisoners in his state, arguing that they will be better qualified for work upon release and will be less likely to commit new crimes. (“You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that’s 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half, that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back.”)

Still, Mann’s report gives some credence to Norquist’s idea that Democrats have a tough time selling rehabilitation programs:

Even some members of the governor’s own party hate this idea. State Assemblywoman Addie Russell, whose upstate district includes three state prisons, says taxpayers just won’t stand for inmates getting a free college education, while middle-class families struggle to pay for their kids’ tuition, housing and books.

“That is the vast majority of feedback that I’m also getting from my constituents,” she says. “You know, ‘Where is the relief for the rest of the law-abiding population?’”

Photo of Texas Gov. Rick Perry from Catholic News Service.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 9 months ago
Oh boy, there is so much confusion and myth concerning prisons, prison reform, prisoners, that I don't even know where to start. Not that I have all the answers, but I do personally know a lot of prisoners and their circumstances. I visit them in prison. I write to them. I talk to their mothers on the phone. I listen to the depths of their grief and feel as if I'm at the foot of the cross with the mother of Jesus, whose son was imprisoned, tortured and killed. First of all, the whole notion of using Life Sentences with no chance for parole to replace the Death Penalty is wrong. Life sentences are just long, drawn out death sentences. See http://www.theotherdeathpenalty.org … Using this argument to replace the death penalty is disingenuous and misguided. My guess is that less than 1% of prisoners are people who are unredeemable and need to be locked up for their entire lives for the safety of the citizenry. Do you know how many old sick men, who long ago lost any inclination for crime, are wasting away in our prisons? The cost of incarceration is far more than for a nursing home because they have to be constantly "watched". Otherwise they might (God help us) escape. Prison sentences in this country are excessively harsh and long. Many, many teenagers are spending 20-30 years in prison for non-violent offenses. Those involved in Felony Murder convictions are spending their entire lives behind bars with NO chance to ever get out. They never killed anyone, they never intended to kill anyone, most of them were involved in a burglary that got out of hand. Or in the wrong place at the wrong time. One (Tim Kane) was 14 years old and hid under a table while his older companions went berserk and killed. They were young, misguided. Many of the fortunate ones have loving families who desperately want them out. Most of them have no one. They are forgotten. No one writes to them. I continue to be stunned by the depth of wisdom and compassion that some prisoners are able to develop and maintain, despite their circumstances and the terrible injustices that they have been dealt. Why are we so unable to give them a 2nd chance? Even in the most deserving cases pleas to the governor for clemency and mercy are denied, time after time. The hardship that this brings to their families is profound. Children without fathers (or mothers). Tim Kane, in prison since he was 14 years old and now 34, just lost his mother to suicide. I am thrilled that the Republicans want to lead the efforts for prison reform. It IS a fiscal disaster. For the amount of money we are paying to lock 'em up, we could be educating them, sending them to rehab for their drug problems, hell, even sending them to Europe for culture tours. The prison / criminal justice system in this country is also a moral disaster, but I've given up trying to convince anyone of that. The financial angle seems to be the one that will get the most traction now, and I'm for whatever will begin to bring about change. Let the Republicans get the credit and carry the banner of reform. Let's get over the notion that locking people up for life will solve problems. If struggling middle class families don't like giving prisoners education, then for God's sake, just let the prisoners out of prison. Most would prefer freedom to free school. It would be far cheaper release them and to give them a years' worth of food and housing to help them get on their feet on the outside than to continue to imprison them. Letting them out cold, with no money and no job and no place to live is not too smart. Can't we figure out some way to help those who harm people other than locking them in cages forever? Even something as simple as turning those vast prison acres into organic farms and letting the prisoners feed the homeless and poor on our streets. Selling the extra to Whole Foods … Most of these men and women in prison really would welcome the opportunity to contribute to our common well being, believe it or not. Yes, I'm outraged and probably over the top with my rant. But if I don't speak out about what I know, who will? Who will speak for the forgotten ones? the ones who have been thrown away?

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A reflection for the third Monday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 17, 2017
25,000 children and pilgrim sang the pope “Happy Birthday" today in St. Peter’s Square.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 17, 2017
A reflection for the third Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 16, 2017
Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017