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.

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