There’s a new sheriff in town. Thanks to a growing libertarian constituency, the great recession, and the physical limitations of “total incapacitation” crime control, a conservative voice has begun speaking up (and often) about prisons.
Let me introduce you to Right on Crime: self-styled a “one-stop source for conservative ideas on criminal justice,” Right on Crime has mobilized a number of heavy-hitting Republicans (primarily of a libertarian ilk) in an effort to reduce our reliance on unnecessarily expensive forms of punishment. Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Newt Gingrich are just a few of their most prominent supporters.
And what do they want? They want change, couched in a rhetorical ballet of traditionalism: public safety, right-sizing government, fiscal discipline, victim support, personal responsibility, governmental accountability, family preservation, and free enterprise are the priorities listed on their website.
I’ll get to my critique in a second here, don’t worry, but before I do: holy shit is this some good stuff. To have these guys, many of them the same people who literally made the argument that the nation should “build enough prisons so that there are enough beds that every violent criminal in America is locked up, and they will serve real time and they will serve their full sentence and they do not get out on good behavior” (Newt Gingrich to NYT, 1992) now turning around and arguing against imprisonment is cause for celebration. Gingrich himself (along with fellow conservative Pat Nolan) recently urged conservatives to “lead the way in addressing an issue often considered off-limits to reform: prisons.” Never mind that it was basically you who put them “off-limits,” Mr. Gingrich – I’ll take it.
And they’re doing work. For a relatively small organization, Right on Crime has an impressive presence in state politics and the mainstream media (check out their state legislation tracker here). They lose absolutely zero opportunities to tout their conservatism, but their message of “less, less, less” is a welcome change from a long reigning and still prevalent message of “more, more more.”
I’ve already alluded to a couple of my complaints with Right on Crime: their highly partisan, divisive messaging (transparently designed to give conservatives credit for any reforms, potentially at the cost of more reform), and the hypocrisy inherent in a conservative push against “tough on crime” politics that conservatives forced onto the agenda almost fifty years ago now.
But far worse than either of those flaws is the short-sighted emphasis on “low-hanging fruit.” Budgetary restrictions and/or burdens on the American taxpayer are consistently cited as the impetus for change, while change itself is virtually only described as affecting “low-level, non-violent offenders.” The role of race and class that is vividly apparent to anyone looking at the system is seldom mentioned, only occasionally thrown in as an afterthought. Solutions that address racism or the other social problems that lead to crime and incarceration are not being proposed by Right on Crime.
Don’t get me wrong – prisons are ridiculously expensive; I would love to see that money channeled into more humane and useful government programs. And yes, non-violent, low-level offenders don’t belong in prison. But, if left alone, the message sent is “stop there.” Don’t do anything that seriously throws into question the rights of the perceived “victim class” (read: white people) compared to the perceived “offender class” (read: Black people).
If allowed to persist uncontested, the Right on Crime crew and their conservative brethren will almost certainly make incremental change and get a lot of credit for it. Reducing a handful of felony charges to misdemeanors and relying on traditional alternatives to incarceration like probation and tracking devices may drive down incarceration rates five or ten percent; maybe even twenty. But in order to return to the rate of incarceration we had in the 1970’s (much less be better than that), we’d have to release eighty percent of the people currently in prison. So don’t mistake Right on Crime for a movement that can end or even seriously injure mass incarceration.
Most dangerously, this movement may entrench the very ideas that allowed prisons to profligate over the last forty years. As Jonathan Simon describes in his new book, Mass Incarceration on Trial, mass incarceration grew out of a “new common sense” about criminals. Thanks to rising crime rights, highly publicized serial murders, militant civil rights activists like the Black Panthers, and a couple of power struggles within prisons, most Americans began to talk about people in prison as having “high and unchanging potential for criminal activity” who can’t be helped and thus must be incapacitated.
The Right on Crime messaging chips away at the notion that all people convicted of crimes are violent animals who must be segregated from society. But in doing so, it consistently gains “conservative cred” on the backs of those who are in prison for violent offenses.
We’ve run out of space and money to keep ramping up offenses and sentences. We’ve also created such a ridiculous behemoth of a system that it’s almost too easy to argue that something needs to change. That change can be a radical rethinking of crime and punishment that takes seriously the value of the people we’re potentially locking up, or it can be minor tinkering that leaves the substance of our system in place. The Right on Crime movement is pushing a series of reforms that may effectively save mass incarceration – imprisonment rates will go down, the U.S. will no longer lead the world in incarceration, and state budgets will experience enough relief to keep going.
Right on Crime is already making impressive headway in getting conservative politicians to seriously doubt the efficacy of blind momentum toward harsher responses to crime. Liberal and radical groups need to speak as loudly and push further, arguing not for state budgets but for humans, and pointing not to “big government” but to racism and an unwillingness to address social problems with anything more meaningful than a warehouse.