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Making prison reform a conservative issue

Richard Viguerie, the Republican direct-mail pioneer, co-founder of the Moral Majority, would probably never be characterized as a moderate.
Making prison reform a conservative issue
Making prison reform a conservative issue

Richard Viguerie, the Republican direct-mail pioneer, co-founder of the Moral Majority, and chair of, would probably never be characterized as a moderate. When it comes to conservative orthodoxy, Viguerie is probably as doctrinaire as any activist in his party.

And with this in mind, I was glad to see his New York Times op-ed today on the "conservative case for prison reform."

Conservatives should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs. Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.But it's not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.These three principles -- public safety, compassion and controlled government spending -- lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

In the not-too-distant past, the conservative line on prisons lacked all reason and nuance. The right wanted more prisons, more prisoners, longer sentences, and no questions. To disagree was to invite the "soft on crime" condemnation. As the nation's prison population soared to unprecedented levels, the right simply responded, "Good."

That's clearly changing in a hurry. The status quo on prisons is extremely expensive, and plenty of conservatives looking to cut government spending see this as a fine place to start.

Democrats have waited for this shift for a while. Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) got the ball rolling on prison reform several years ago, to the delight of his Democratic colleagues, and though other national priorities took precedence, the conversation has slowly been building, and gaining broader ideological acceptance.

For Viguerie, there's even a name for conservatives coming around on this issue: the "Right on Crime campaign."

This Right on Crime campaign supports constitutionally limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility and free enterprise. Conservatives known for being tough on crime should now be equally tough on failed, too-expensive criminal programs. They should demand more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety and the well-being of all Americans.Some prominent national Republican leaders who have joined this effort include Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the National Rifle Association leader David Keene and the former attorney general Edwin Meese III.

Keep in mind, this isn't entirely new. Johns Hopkins's David Dagan and Steve Teles wrote a Washington Monthly piece last year on conservative movement on prison reform over the last decade, including support from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Libertarians like the idea of reforming the system, because it would mean less government and less spending, and social conservatives have been on board thanks in large part to Chuck Colson and his allies.

As we discussed in November, there just aren't many major issues in which common ground between Democrats and Republicans is possible, but if we're making a list, reforming the criminal justice system deserves to be on it. There's a real opportunity here for much-needed change here and here's hoping it can be in the mix for President Obama's second term.

In March 2009, Webb said on the Senate floor, "Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world's population; we have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." There's no reason for Congress to avoid this question.