Conservatives at the Genesis of Prison Reform

The Best Of: This article, published on November 12,2012, was a harbinger of an avalanche of commentary on the conservative right’s assumed leadership of the prison reform movement.

In an article recently published  in the Washington Monthly, “The Conservative War on Prisons”, by David Dagan and Steven Teles, the authors make a powerful case for a conservative genesis for the current prison reform movement.

I had previously believed that prison reform was a liberal agenda and that conservatives were late  to the party. The authors make a strong case, that conservatives, while not in the vanguard of the prison reform movement, were ultimately responsible for its current successes.

As the authors put it, “Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits [of imprisonment] on trial. Discovering that the nation’s prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, they are beginning to attack it—and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed.”

According to the authors, the effective prison reform movment dates to the imprisonment of staunch conservative and Watergate conspirator, Charles Colson, who served time in a federal penitentiary. He  later establishment the “Prison Ministry”, which provided the moral underpinnings for a conservative reexamination of imprisonment. Led by “tough on crime” Texas and the “Texas Public Policy Foundation” (TPPF)— Texas’ premier conservative think tank, conservative governors got the political cover they needed to begin to reform overcrowded prison systems that were bankrupting their states. Even “The Second Chance Act”, widely revered as a one hundred million dollar grant program, to enhance reentry into the community, was a conservative inititive, It was initially proposed by Republican Representative Rob Porter and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

It appears that there is an important lesson here for progressives who wish to move prison reform forward. The article suggests  that critical conservative support for a progressive criminal justice agenda (as well as other agendas) is possible, when conservatives come to the table, on their initiative and based on their own values.  Definitely an article worth reading.

Administration announces Interagency Reentry Council

As reported in the National Reentry Resource Center’s Newsletter, Attorney General Eric Holder convened the inaugural meeting of the Interagency Reentry Council last week. “Attending the Cabinet-level meeting were the secretaries of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and the Interior; as well as the heads of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Social Security Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the White House Domestic Policy Council, and the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships”.

Interestingly, last week, the likes of Newt Gringrich and Pat Nolan, right wing conservatives, were making their positions known in a Op-ED piece in the Washington Post,  favoring prison reform and reentry strategies not necessarily unlike, those of the Interagency Reentry Council.  As discussed here in the past, there is a confluence of interest across the nation (and around the world) favoring prison reform. Unfortunately it is not a movement always born of concern for the prisoners and their needs, but  one focused on the cost of keeping prisons open and  keeping prisoners in prison (when recidivism remains above 50% within three years of release).

Nevermind. It matters little how we got here, but what we’re able to do to further the agenda of real prison reform, focusing on getting the prisoner back to the community where rehabilitation is possible and where reintegration into the community is a critical necessity. Pay close attention to how the politicians work this issue and make sure that the interests of the prisoner and the community are not lost in translation.

March 18: Deadline For Reentry Mentoring Grants

Community involvement in the Reentry Process is critical to the success of a reentry court. Our guest post, on the importance of Mentoring in the Reentry Process, was written by Pat Nolan , of the “Justice Fellowship”:

Prison Fellowship has found that having a mentor increases the beneficial impact of the other programs they participate in. Ex-offenders need healthy relationships even more than they need programs. A mentor is there to help them think through the myriad decisions that confront them—where to live, how to get a job, where to get medical care. Even mundane things like obtaining a driver’s license or a state ID. Mentors also hold offenders accountable for staying on the right path and help them get back on their feet when they falter.

It’s great news that the grants just issued by the BJA’s Office of Justice Programs are meant to be used to help build the capacity of local communities to match returning offenders with a mentor. There were 507 applications for the first round of grants, and we anticipate even greater demand for the $15 million available this year. The mentoring grants are the only source of funding currently available for community- and faith-based groups under the Second Chance Act; so, be prepared for stiff competition.

The announcement from BJA has excellent step-by-step instructions, an invaluable checklist and a comprehensive syllabus of articles about mentoring. My hat is off to Gary Dennis and his team at BJA. They have done a terrific job establishing this grant program in a way that is understandable to those of us who are not in government service. [For the full article see: Justice Fellowship]

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