On January 8, 2011, Sam Brownback will be sworn in as the 46th governor of Kansas.  Governor-elect Brownback is one of the nation’s most thoughtful voices on criminal justice reform.  In many respects, he emerged as the star in a New York Times Magazine article several years ago entitled “The Right Has a Jailhouse Conversion”:

“Brownback…routinely mentions prison reform — especially the faith-based variety — in public speeches.  During Alberto Gonzales’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general, he made a special point of asking Gonzales about his plans to reduce prison recidivism.  He wrote a letter to The Washington Post in February complaining about an op-ed by the U.C.L.A. psychologist David Farabee, who dismissed the Second Chance Act as a return to ‘the intuitively appealing programs that we correctly rejected 30 years ago.’  Brownback countered in his letter, ‘We should not be resigned to allowing generation after generation to return to prison because they don’t have the tools to break the cycle.'”

Understand that Brownback is not creating a new conservative position on criminal justice.  Rather, he is reclaiming an old position that is inherently conservative, but from which many conservatives have drifted away.  It is a position (or perhaps an “attitude”) that emphasizes efficiency — getting superior results at a reasonable cost.  He combats the suggestion that he might be “soft on crime” by explaining that his prison reform ideas are ultimately about the recidivism bottom-line: “I think we have to prove results.”

Brownback does not just talk about prison reform.  He has tried to “live” the issue by actually spending some nights in prison.  In 2006, The Weekly Standard covered the story of a night that he spent at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas and Fox News covered his night at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

It is hard to predict what a politician will actually do in office, but you can often get a good sense of what they want to do and where their heart lies.  In Sam Brownback, Kansans can be quite confident that they have a leader in Topeka who cares deeply about getting criminal justice right.