An interesting article in Salon today brings up a point often discussed in the criminal justice arena: there’s a growing movement from the political right-wing for prison reform–and it’s being lead by conservatives who’ve spent time behind bars.
In the piece, titled “Right-winger + hard time = compassion?,” reporter Justin Elliot points to a recent letter from prison by former Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham, who pled guilty to corruption charges in 2005:
“The United States has more more men & women in prison than any other nation including Russia and China,” he wrote. “The largest growing number of prisoners, women — 1-34 Americans are either on probation or in prison. The 95% conviction rate reached by threats of long sentences, intimidation, lies and prosecutorial abuse has got to be reckoned with now, not later.” Cunningham also promised he would dedicate his life to prison reform.
Cunningham here is following in the footsteps of conservatives Pat Nolan, Conrad Black, and Charles Colson, who also turned to prison reform after periods of incarceration.
Ohio State Law Professor Douglas Berman, who Elliot spoke to for the piece, says that actually experiencing prison disrupts the “good vs. evil dichotomy” that makes up the traditional “tough on crime” platform so long a conservative staple:
“There are some good people that get sent to prison, and some evil people who don’t. It’s essential to the usual conservative ideology that’s tough on crime to think, ‘There are the good people that the politicians need to protect from the bad people. And the bad people go to jail.’ Going to prison and experiencing that nothing is ever that black and white plays a significant role in conservatives coming out and becoming reform advocates.”
In wake of the financial crisis, conservatives are also jumping into prison reform to combat what they see as unhealthy government spending patterns–and are starting to look to community alternatives that are both cheaper and more effective at combating recidivism.
Does this trend signal new hope for reforms previously blocked by “tough on crime” politics?
Berman tells Elliot he’s optimistic, but that “optimism is always tempered by the fact that the political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking.”