As a result of such measures we now have the world’s highest incarceration rate, with a shocking 2.2 million Americans behind bars—but that number could start dropping, if prison reformers have their way.
According to David Dagan and Steven M. Teles in Washington Monthly, criminal justice reform is gaining momentum as conservatives who once were tough on crime are becoming tough on prisons:
A rogue’s gallery of conservative crime warriors have joined [Newt] Gingrich’s call for Americans to rethink their incarceration reflex. They include Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, William Bennett—even the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council. Most importantly, more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead.
Skeptics might conclude that conservatives are only rethinking criminal justice because lockups have become too expensive. But whether prison costs too much depends on what you think of incarceration’s benefits. Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits on trial. Discovering that the nation’s prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, they are beginning to attack it—and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed.
The late Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship plays a role in the story, of course, one which Stephanos Bibas explored on this site after Colson’s death. Dagan and Teles recount the movement’s development from the left-leaning perspective typical of the magazine; nevertheless, it’s a fascinating story of how conservative Christians and fiscal hawks joined a cause long dear to liberals and libertarians. Given the high costs, both societal and financial, of our incarceration rate, I hope the new alliance continues to succeed.