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Michael Haugen | May 24, 2016
As part of a continuing discussion about criminal justice reform stemming from the DOJ’s “National Reentry Week” late last month, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel of experts to explore the themes of the new book “Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration,” by Dr. Steven Teles and Dr. David Dagan.
As Teles describes in his opening remarks, the book provides a timeline of how conservatives have increasingly become very skeptical of prison systems that have grown largely on autopilot, in many instances turning 180 degrees away from a “tough on crime” mantra that characterized much conservative thought for decades. Driven by more than simply trying to curb incarceration’s high costs—a common charge made against conservatives by the Left—they’ve sought to reform the criminal justice system, according to Teles, due to a shift towards a more “anti-statist” philosophy, a realization that decades-old sentencing structures have diminishing returns, and because of a view among evangelicals (e.g. one of Right on Crime’s first signatories, Chuck Colson) that prisoners aren’t beyond redemption.
Providing a practical example of this theory is Vikrant Reddy, of the Charles Koch Institute. Reddy, a former analyst at Right on Crime, relays the story of how Texas has set the tone for reform since its first major set of legislative proposals in 2007.
For years prior to then, elected officials commonly sought to outdo their opponents for who could be the “toughest” on crime, and as a result, prisons sprouted up to accommodate increases in incarceration. In 2007, however, politicians started to “blanche” at the possibility of building an additional capacity of 17,000 beds—“don’t build more prisons, they cost too much” was the refrain of House Speaker Tom Craddick to Jerry Madden, whom he put in charge of solving the dilemma—so instead, legislators invested $241 million to bolster alternatives to incarceration, including parole and probation, and drug courts.
The result was that Texas succeeded in averting the construction of any new prisons, has even been able to close three adult prisons since then, and has enjoyed reduced crime rates not seen since 1968. Other conservative states have been emboldened by this success, and have pursued similar reforms of their own.
Full video of the event is below: