Not long ago, I visited a juvenile detention center for a project. A long line of young men passed me on the way back from rec time, carefully kept to one side of a bright yellow line. Maybe one or two white faces out of thirty or forty. The hallway conversation includes the usual (fuzzed) snippets: This young man was doing so well, but then he got caught with a gun. This one’s grandparents are so burned out that they can’t help anymore. This one sells drugs to support his mom. This one seems like an okay kid, but he keeps smoking weed and skipping school. I wish Governor Romney and President Obama had more-seriously engaged one of our worst national scandals: the incarceration of two million fellow citizens in jail or prison. Some of these inmates must be locked up for the safety of the community. Many do not. Policies such as “three strikes” virtually ensure that we will impose long sentences on offenders who might once have been dangerous, but who now pose a much smaller threat. Mark Kleiman has covered these issues well in his book, When brute force fails. Crime is down. There is no excuse for this.
Liberals have long decried these inhumane policies. The Obama administration has made some progress in the drug arena. Yet it’s a heavy political lift. For obvious reasons, liberals can’t fix this alone. But there’s good news. They’re not alone. One bright spot in modern conservatism has been the new concern expressed by many prominent figures from Bill Bennett to Newt Gingrich to the over-incarceration problem. Twenty years ago, culture-war conservatives supported harsh criminal justice policies. Since then, many conservatives have subsequent found reason to reconsider. Conservatives have different reasons for this change of perspective. Libertarians lament the expansive reach of the surveillance state, and the needlessly harsh punishment of many nonviolent offenders. Religious conservatives lament the incredible waste of human potential implied by the warehousing of so many people. Fiscal conservatives lament the billions of dollars spent to finance such policies.
Consider the 2012 Republican Party platform. Regarding abortion rights, health reform, and many other issues, that document is really quite retrograde. But then one encounters the words: “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner re- entry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.” If you are as liberal as I am, you might be tempted to dismiss such conservative efforts as inadequate or insincere. That would be a mistake. Conservative discomfort with the carceral state is real. It is growing. And it matters.
In the latest Washington Monthly, David Dagan and Steven Teles recount this fascinating history very well. Groups such as Right on Crime, and leading conservatives such as Pat Nolan, Richard Viguerie, Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, and Bill Bennett have leant their names in a conscious effort to “give conservatives political cover to launch [criminal justice] reforms.” This has mattered, for the Second Chance Act and for other matters.
Had Mitt Romney been a more creative and supple politician, he might have tapped into these criminal justice reforms. Earlier this year, he spoke at the NAACP annual convention, delivering a tough speech decrying health reform that many people believe was specifically designed to elicit boos. Imagine if Romney had, instead, spoken to that convention in a serious way about racial disparities in incarceration rates. That would have genuinely surprised his audience. It would also have embarrassed President Obama, who has done too little in addressing this problem.*
Romney is not that kind of compassionate conservative. But don’t be surprised if Marco Rubio or Mike Huckabee gives a different speech in 2016. I certainly hope this happens. In the meanwhile, read Dagan and Teles’s fine piece. It suggests at least the possibility for bipartisan progress.
*Keith Humphreys rightly notes over email that my knock on President Obama is too quick. In fact, the Obama administration has rolled back crack/cocaine powder sentencing disparities, ended drug war rhetoric, and has presided over the first decline in the prison population since the 1970s. More here.