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Could Prison Reform Become Less Partisan?

By Andrew Cullison
13 Feb 2015
Prison Bars” Michael Coghlan (CC BY SA 2.0)

The American Conservative posted this interesting piece yesterday last week about Virginia’s former attorney general, a Republican, who is now on a crusade against the incarceration state.

The article argues that both parties have been complicit in the increase in mass incarceration, but notes that traditionally the push for more incarceration comes from the conservative camp and that Democrats have followed suit to avoid appearing too soft.

Yet despite the countless failings of the Democratic Party on criminal justice matters, the political bidding for harsher policing and sentencing has been led for the past half-century by the right. From Nixon’s “War on Crime” to Reagan’s “War on Drugs”—campaigns that long ago ceased to be metaphors—it has been Republicans who have first leapt on more policing and longer sentences as an effective wedge issue, while Democrats anxiously wimp-proofed their right flanks by supporting the same measures with a little extra funding for midnight basketball.

The push for tougher incarceration measures was largely led by the right. That’s why it’s interesting to see push back from conservatives on this issue, and a change of heart from someone deeply involved in that push.

It’s raises an interesting theoretical question: What should a political conservative think about prison reform? It has been traditionally part of the conservative ethos to be tough on crime. However, an important core of the conservative framework stems from libertarian values and a commitment to fiscal responsibility. Focusing on those elements of the conservative political philosophy might push someone committed to conservative politics to seriously reconsider our incarceration practices. Incarceration costs a lot of money and it encroaches on liberty – these are both things that many conservatives think we should be very conservative about.

What do you think? What should someone with a commitment to political conservatism think about the current state of our incarceration practices?

Andrew Cullison is the director of the Cincinnati Ethics Center.
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