A Conservative View of Incarceration Reform
I am pretty tough on the left wing in my approach to incarceration reform, because the fight against “mass incarceration” usually takes on a socialistic, victim-oriented approach. I will try to even things up a bit. Even though I am a lonely conservative prison reform advocate, I will now take the right wing to task on the issues of criminal punishment and incarceration. Before doing so, I’d like to point out that the liberal versus conservative balancing act is not evenly arrayed on the issue of what to do with convicted criminals. Many folks who are liberal on other issues support conservatives on law and order issues. You will recall that the Congressional Black Caucus initially supported super-tough penalties for crack cocaine. Many of the opponents of mass incarceration are from the left end of the left wing. Many law and order advocates are otherwise considered to be liberal. This is why opposition to mass incarceration has to expand to the right, in the conservative direction, and at least take up the entire moderate center before it will succeed. It cannot remain solely on the pages of left-wing websites, especially those with other agendas, and have any chance of success.
The primary mistake made by law & order interests, including most conservatives, is that we tried to pile on more prison time, mandatory sentences and three-strikes legislation in a failed effort to attack the supply of illegal drugs. Unfortunately, drug dealers were always found to occupy the market niches created and street promotions facilitated by incarceration. The supply of illegal drugs never stopped. And of course, it was illegal private enterprise running circles around the government, just as private enterprise usually does in other areas of life. The right accepted the failed experiment of incarceration, moving towards a bigger, more expensive government, without fully exploring what the Founders did to combat crime or punish criminals.
Those who look back in time to tried and true solutions did not look back far enough into our history. We accepted the bloated incarceration paradigm, which is not what the Founders intended. In truth, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt – all the presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore – favored judicial corporal punishment of citizens, as mandated in the Bible, Deuteronomy 25:1-3. (How Washington & Jefferson punished their slaves is another matter.) Ours was supposed to be the Land of the Free.
We passed legislation to increase the number of crimes and prosecutorial power, to the end that our prisons became overcrowded, we built more prisons, and then they became overcrowded, etc. Federal courts were required to police prisons and keep them from cruel and unusual punishments. It’s not “judicial activism” when federal judges have to enforce the U.S. Constitution.
Within conservative ranks, the social conservative law and order crowd completely dominated the libertarians who said illegal drugs should be legalized. For years, not one state stepped forward to give this a chance, nor did the federal government much loosen its grip on all 50 states in this regard. The laboratory of federalism and states’ rights had little room to experiment in the face of the all-powerful federal government.
While addressing the death penalty, victims’ rights and new crimes, abolishing parole in the federal system, and adding years to sentences, crime rates started to decline… but there was no let-up in the pressure to incarcerate for 20 years. Some wrongly calculated the benefit of incapacitation, though I have to admit my own uncertainty as to that calculation. It is very likely that much less than half the crime rate decrease is due to additional incarceration.
In the end, everything was focused on the very debatable societal value of sending massive numbers to prison. We conservatives little noticed that things were definitely not like this when the Founders wrote the United States Constitution. In our times, the problem of crime was attacked vigorously, at great expense, with a blunt crimogenic instrument not able to rehabilitate offenders or deter crimes, making the problem worse. The net results were a massive increase in government expense, control and bureaucracy and creation of what may be the largest group of full-ride welfare recipients in the history of the world, most of whom do not work because of restrictive laws inhibiting prison industries. These were not the goals we conservatives are supposed to seek.
When the proper tools are not used to fix something, the results often disappoint.