Compassionate conservatives doing genuine good on mass incarceration–and a genuinely missed Romney opportunity

David Dagan and Steven Teles tell a fascinating story of conservative support for prison reform.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

23 thoughts on “Compassionate conservatives doing genuine good on mass incarceration–and a genuinely missed Romney opportunity”

  1. I think that Harold (and Dagan/Teles) might be right for Republican elites: fiscal and religious. However, I’m not sure that the base is ready for this. And the base runs the party.

    Note that I did not mention libertarians. I’m reasonably sure that Dagan/Teles are also correct for libertarians. But libertarians have no juice with the party, so their voice doesn’t count. They are weakly tolerated by the Republicans when they wish to present a respectable face to the world. That is, when they are tolerated at all. Republicans are much happier with Randroids (i.e., market feudalists) than libertarians. (IANALibertarian, but they do play for Team Enlightenment and I acknowledge my kinship. Same with Marxists, for that matter.)

    1. hi, Ebbie!

      I’m confused. What is IANALibertarian? Does that mean, “I am not a libertarian…?” Just checking.

      Second, just as a quibble, I tend to think of the GOP as composed of two groups: the religious, and the money people. Libertarians, imho, are a mere subset of the money people. For the most part. What *most*, not all, of them really care about is taxes and money. They are liberal on “social issues” because those don’t cost money. If they did, they wouldn’t be. And of those groups, I actually like the religious ones better, even though I think they are generally wrong about many, many things.

      So my question is, when you say the base isn’t ready, who’s the base?

      1. 1. The Republican base is the Taliban and the ressentimentalists. They are different groups. The Taliban can actually be okay on economic and racial issues–their thang is gender roles and churchandstate. The ressentimentalists are against anything that the Jews are for. Did I say “Jews?” Ooops, I mean “Liberals.”
        2. You read “IANALibertarian” correctly.
        3. Not all libertarians are a mere subset of the money people. Julian Sanchez, Radley Balko, or the “Unqualified Offerings” gang, for example, are very different.

        1. Thanks, especially for 3). It is good to hear about new-to-me worthwhile writers.

          I will cogitate further on the ressentimentalists. I am not familiar with the term, so I googled it and found, eventually (I didn’t see a standard dictionary def), this:

          Which, if you scroll down, more or less says that it is when you deceive yourself by having a sort of “cover” motive – to yourself? – or attitude, when really you are upset about something else entirely or have some sneaky goal that you’re aiming at. Is that right?

          Although then there is this one:

          Which names Nietzsche as the source for it. Anyhoo. Things got a little too English Department on this page, for me. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that … )

          In common terms, could one describe these people as “haters?”

          I do think I left out a third group. There are, as some sort of overlay?, also some moderate Republicans. Weirdly, I know one myself, and he parrots a lot of the b.s., but I know he’s just saying it for the sake of argument. He says, f.e., with a straight face that if Romney won, *of course* Roe v. Wade wouldn’t *really* be overturned. (Why he thinks this, I have no idea. Hello?) And if it had been, it would “just go back to the states.” But I know him to be a normal person. So. They are a mystery to me, a bit. This is all making me want to look up some data.

          1. Would some friendly admin edit this post to shorten the text of the links? They’re making this page hard to read on my laptop (since they inflate every post’s margins beyond the size of my browser window).

          2. Oh, and to say something on substance, I think “ressentiment = haters” is about right. The Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick link you have second is a rather, ah, eccentric reading of ressentiment (though pretty hilarious, I think intentionally so).

            The nickel version is that it’s a moralized hatred; you resent people who are happier, healthier, etc. than you, and conceive that this hatred is because their happiness and health is in fact evil. Whereas the happy, healthy people have no need to moralize the differences between them and other people; they’re already happy without needing other people as their foil.

            If you want to go to the source, here’s the Genealogy of Morals; maybe the best quote:

            That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey. And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?” there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal, except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down on them with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, “We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs. We even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.”

          3. matt:
            sorry about the line wrap issue (if I did that). That happens to me too sometimes and it’s beyond annoying.

            I will remember to reference Nietzsche the next time I am in an argument with a holier-than-me vegetarian/vegan. It won’t be long. (Incidentally — anybody here read the book on the China Study???)

            I never read much Nietzsche. Maybe it’s time.

  2. Prison reform is an issue that attracts a fair bit of sincere support from niche groups on both the left and the right but it is (sadly in my opinion) not an issue that the bulk of voters (left and right) care much about.

    I wonder if “rehabilitation” is poor branding. The word is tarred with negative associations from a period a few decades ago when prison conditions were better and prison populations much lower, but alas – crime rates much higher. One can argue that the present system is inhumane and inefficient (and on that, I whole-heartedly agree), but I suspect that the average citizen frames up a tradeoff that pits 1978 urban crime levels against 2012 urban crime levels and concludes, respectfully, “fuck you very much Mr. well-intentioned reformer wanting to talk to me about an enlightened approach to jailing.”

    It also seems to me that the prison rape issue is a good first step / wedge issue here. Just about everybody thinks that a 19 year old who steals a car ought to go to jail for a bit. Opinions are mixed about whether a 19 year old who buys a bit of cocaine ought to go to jail for a bit. But its not hard to make the argument that society is poorly served by either 19 year old being violently raped behind bars and then turned back out onto the streets, psychologically broken and unstable, a year or two later. And once you start seeing that 19 year old as a human being, and/or once you start thinking about what sort of incarceration program spits out the healthiest, most capable of re-adjusting to society ex-cons on the back end, you all of a sudden are confronted with a host of questions that are less dramatic, but no less impactful in the aggregate, than the prison rape issue itself.

    1. Well, definite ditto on the rape question, always and everywhere, regardless of the crime. It’s torture. Anyone civilized must be against it.

      Now, as to your 19 year old car thief… did he jack the car, or just hotwire it? I am not sure we all agree on jail time, if the latter. I don’t.

    2. The government has an obligation to protect those it has taken into custody from, among other things, acts of violence including rape.

      1. Ditto!!! If we got rid of government immunity for this, all of a sudden it would happen a lot less.

  3. I think that Chuck Colson deserves a lot of the credit for getting this issue on the conservative radar.

    1. Yes, and he might never have made that leap if he hadn’t gone to prison himself. I have a ton of respect for him. He seems like a truly spiritually plugged in person.

  4. Just like to throw restorative justice into the mix. The idea that victims should get a real voice in the punishment of those who have wronged them, and that offenders should have an incentive to seek their pardon, is intuitively strong, though it needs to be framed carefully. It doesn´t work for victimless crimes like drug abuse, but the social evil of drugs is the associated theft and violence, which generate named victims.

    The demand for severe punishment is often framed as a reflection of the demands of victims; but this is not always true. The current criminal justice system makes punishment the only way of responding to the needs of victims. Those ready to pardon don´t get any say, unless they refuse to testify for the prosecution: but that decision rules out the important public recognition of the wrong done, and can´t usually result from a meaningful interaction with the offender.

    1. The only reason we have a justice *system* at all is so that society can act as the vicar of the individual victim, who thereupon vanishes. We speak of offenders “paying their debt to society”, not to their individual victims. This is essential, as there is no coherent middle ground between a vicarious system and a jungle of individual revenge and vigilantism. The vicarious system is a pillar of civilization and is, in principle, entirely vitiated by the sentimental urge to reinsert individual victims into the process.

      1. Whether it’s a ‘middle ground’ or not, there is a valuable and substantial role for some kind of ‘face the victim’ moment for some kinds of offender, who are often led to take some personal responsibility for their actions. This helps the victims feel better – and tends to make them less vindictive than they would be about a faceless criminal – and can help the offender go straight by associating his (or occasionally her) actions with consequences for real people.

        It’s a bit like the discussion about apology legislation, where apologies are encouraged by banning their use in civil litigation about the events to which they relate. Those who think that the only compensation for wrong is money are suspicious of apologies, since sometimes (not always) the victims are inclined to forgive the person apologizing and don’t insist on money so much.

        Bringing the human element into the system does not lead to vigilante ‘justice’ and it certainly does not change the fact that the criminal justice system acts in the name of the ‘people’ or the state, not the individual victims.

      2. I suggest you look at actual experiments with restorative justice. The results look very promising. In the US, Hawaii leads the way with its Huikahi Restorative Circles; not surprisingly, as restitution is a common component of the traditional justice systems of tribal peoples.

        The vicarious punishment movement – in the English-speaking world, associated with King Henri I Beauclerc – hardly shows a centuries-long record of success or theoretical coherence.

    2. “The current criminal justice system makes punishment the only way of responding to the needs of victims.”

      I think that’s what the tort system is for.

  5. It’s better if they don’t make a political issue out of it. When they do, it quickly degenerates to a “can you top this” contest where both players see who can be the toughest on crime.

    If it’s not a high profile political issue, reforms can be made without much fanfare.

  6. Forcibly converting people to Christianity (and only Christianity) as a condition for their release or to avoid incarceration in the first place isn’t a good thing.

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