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Why Conservatives' Prison Reform Plans Won't Work

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

At the close of last year, in an interview with the Wichita Eagle, conservative mega-donor Charles Koch announced he would push for criminal justice reform in 2015. Last month, that effort became official with the formation of the Coalition for Public Safety, a partnership between Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress that also features the American Civil Liberties Union, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, and Tea Party group FreedomWorks.

Some have called this an "unlikely alliance," but that's less true by the day: Criminal justice reform, especially prison reform, has become a rare point of bipartisan activism. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has long touted the benefits of reducing sentences, increasing probation-style penalties, and shutting down prisons. Senator Rand Paul has also built up a strong record on prison reform, teaming up with Democrat New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to push mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Utah Senator Mike Lee has advanced similar sentencing legislation with the support of Democrat senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. 

But skepticism of these conservative reformers runs deep on the left. As The Atlantic's Molly Ball noted Tuesday in an article about the Kochs' reform efforts, "not everyone is convinced that their efforts are quite so sincere." The Kochs' intentions might be irrelevant though; every coalition has mixed motives. The real question isn't whether these conservatives care about the disadvantaged, but whether their approach will indeed improve the lives of the disadvantaged. There's strong evidence of quite the opposite—that it would make their lives worse.

The underlying reasoning on the right might sound familiar: to reduce spending. As Ball observed, the Koch quest to cut down the prison population fits into this rising conservative “desire to control spiraling prison costs.” Perry, Paul, and Lee's also tout cost-cutting in their pursuit of prison reform. “Making smart reforms to our drug sentencing laws will save the taxpayers billions of dollars,” Lee said of his plan, a selling point echoed by Perry and Paul. “I think it’s a fiscally conservative thing to want less people in prison, particularly nonviolent people, because it’s enormously expensive,” Paul said. Perry put it this way: “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money.”  

Reducing prison populations will doubtlessly improve a vast number of lives. The United States currently claims the highest incarceration rate in the world, with some 6,899,000 individuals under the supervision of adult correctional facilities at the close of 2013. As the National Prison Rape Elimination Act Resource Center has noted, prison overcrowding leads to staff neglect which enables the rape and torture of inmates, and also strains sanitation and food services. And that goes only for those already incarcerated. For populations disproportionately affected by imprisonment, the tendency of the American justice system to rely on long prison sentences also means dislocation from community, family, and work. The shame and stigma that come with the incarceration of loved ones affect entire communities, whether or not they themselves are in prison.

Paul, Perry, are Lee are right to observe that the costs of maintaining American prisons are extremely high and quickly rising. According to a study by the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank on justice and policy reform, the prison system cost taxpayers roughly $39 billion in 2010 alone. Reducing prison populations would reduce these costs, but it isn’t clear that prison reform should be premised on cost-cutting, or if doing so would ultimately help the populations the prison system currently harms. According to The Sentencing Project, more than 60 percent of people currently in prison are racial minorities, and poor people and people with mental health or substance abuse problems are disproportionately imprisoned.

A 2014 National Research Council report found that, in a number of states, the criminal justice system has become the main distributor of healthcare, drug abuse treatment, mental health services, job training and education for the most disadvantaged populations in America.” Indeed, America’s prisons house ten times the number of mentally ill people that state hospitals do; prison is also the only place where healthcare and college education come free to vastly poor populations. In other words: Yes, prisons are ridiculously expensive, and reducing prison the prison population would improve the lives of the otherwise incarcerated by limiting their exposure to horrible prison conditions and dislocation from their communities. But it wouldn’t solve the underlying problems that bring so many people into contact with the justice system in the first place: poverty, mental illness, and desperation. 

Thus, the politics of cost-cutting harms the very people that prison reform should aim to help. It isn’t that prison sentences shouldn’t be reduced, or that mass incarceration shouldn’t come to an end, or that the conditions of prisoners shouldn’t be vastly improved. But poor and mentally ill people who wind up in prison will still be poor and mentally ill even if the prison system is reformed. So the focus shouldn't be on slashing spending, but improving the lives of people before, during, and after prison.

The fact that prisons act as de-facto welfare agencies delivering healthcare, college education, shelter, and job training should emphasize the gaping holes in our social insurance system. Programs that fund education and job training, as well as a universal healthcare system outfitted to administer physical and mental care, would go a long way to solving the underlying issues that compromise the lives of people long before they become inmates. On the local level, programs aimed at community based substance abuse rehabilitation and mental healthcare would help people improve their lives enough to stay out of prison, or to recover afterward. But none of these programs would be free, and Perry, Paul, and Lee's rhetoric makes clear that they do not intend to pay for them.

In that sense, criminal justice reform may not be this year's great hope for bipartisan policymaking after all, but rather another effort that will come up short thanks to conservative intransigence when it comes to social spending.