Monday, June 10, 2013

A Conservative Case for Prison Reform

by Daniel Horwitz

In the op-ed section of today’s New York Times, conservative icon Richard Viguerie makes a compelling case that our nation’s criminal justice system offends foundational conservative values and requires comprehensive reform.  Citing the right’s commitment to reining in out-of-control government spending and promoting both public safety and compassion, Viguerie argues that America’s prison system violates several principles that lie “at the core of conservative philosophy,” and calls upon conservatives to subject our national system of mass incarceration “to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.”  Ultimately coming to the conclusion that our entire criminal justice system is “another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs,” Viguerie joins prominent G.O.P. leaders like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and the NRA’s David Keene in demanding “an alternative to government-knows-best programs that are failing prisoners and the society into which they are released.”

Due in large part to the devastating and vastly disproportionate effects that the War on Drugs has had on low-income and minority communities, until recently the case for comprehensive criminal justice reform has primarily been advanced by members of the political left.  Although, as I have previously argued on this blog, there is really no reason why those on the right shouldn’t also be able to support ending America’s drug war, Viguerie’s larger point that conservatives ought to be furious about our bloated, ineffective and inhumane criminal justice system as a whole is an incredibly persuasive one.  Building on the work of the cleverly-titled “Right  on Crime” campaign (which supports overhauling America’s criminal justice system in the name of constitutionally limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, Christianity, and free enterprise), Viguerie contends that “conservatives known for being tough on crime should now be equally tough on failed, too-expensive criminal programs,” and should be demanding “more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety and the well-being of all Americans.”  Similarly, given the vast number of families that have been torn apart by our overly-incarcerative criminal justice system  (not to mention today’s horrendous allegations of inmate abuse inMississippi), Viguerie’s additional contention that the sheer inhumanity of prisons should shock the conservative conscience seems equally compelling.

Fortunately, according to Viguerie, conservative lawmakers in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, New Hampshire, Ohio and South Dakota have already taken the lead in enacting reforms that have expanded alternatives to incarceration, reduced prison sentences for low-risk offenders, and saved taxpayers billions.  Will a conservative lawmaker here in Tennessee step up to the plate and exhibit similar leadership?  Or will our legislature continue to cower to the influence of Tennessee’s private prison lobby and give voters the false sense that we need to imprison non-violent, low-level drug offenders in order to be “tough on crime”?  Regrettably, given how many of our politicians are better  known for being corporate shills thanexhibiting any kind of political bravery, I’m sad to say that I have strong doubts that a meaningful criminal justice reform bill will make its way to Governor Haslam’s desk at any point in the near future.  In light of the growing chorus of conservative voices calling for an end to the madness of mass incarceration, however, perhaps that day won’t actually end up being so far off after all.

Daniel Horwitz is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, where he won the Damali A. Booker Award for legal and social activism and served as the Vice President of Law Students for Social Justice.  He can be contacted at

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1 comment:

  1. The following is a very important & eye opening documentary about this problem: