Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movement towards prison reform...from the right

Take a guess at who said this:
There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential.
Would you be surprised if I told you it was none other than Newt Gingrich?

But is that any more surprising than the fact that Pat Robertson supported the legalization of pot in Colorado?



Color me surprised to find out that religious conservatives and libertarians in the Republican Party are becoming one of the strongest voices for prison reform in our country right now. Or so say David Dagan and Steve Teles in a fascinating article in The Washington Monthly.

Once you wrap your mind around this reality, the first impulse might be to assume that it has to do with the expense involved (ie, big government). It sounds like that is part of the motivation. But as I wrote about recently, the groundwork for all of this came from a couple of individuals who got to see the problems in our prisons up close and personal...Chuck Colson and Pat Nolan. For those interested in this issue, I highly recommend that you read this history that Dagan and Teles bring to light.

Beyond the potential to have an impact on what has seemed to be an intractable issue in this country, the Washington Monthly authors also draw some fascinating conclusions about how bipartisanship might work in this age of polarization.
The story of how conservatives began to change their positions on incarceration holds lessons far from the world of prisons. Advocates of policy change, their funders, and well-meaning pundits regularly bemoan the ideological stiffening that bedevils efforts at bipartisan cooperation. The usual answer to hyper-polarization is to somehow rebuild the center. But the power of party activists (especially on the right) to control primary elections and discipline politicians who step out of line is not going to go away anytime soon. The center, it seems, will not hold—in fact, it barely even exists anymore.

The lesson of the slowly changing politics of crime on the right is that policy breakthroughs in our current environment will happen not through “middle-path” coalitions of moderates, but as a result of changes in what strong, ideologically defined partisan activists and politicians come to believe is their own, authentically conservative or liberal position. Conservatives over the last few years haven’t gone “soft.” They’ve changed their minds about what prisons mean...

As Yale law professor Dan Kahan has argued, studies and randomized trials are useless in persuading the ideologically committed until such people are convinced that new information is not a threat to their identity. Until then, it goes in one ear and out the other. Only rock-ribbed partisans, not squishy moderates, can successfully engage in this sort of “identity vouching” for previously disregarded facts...

In this confusing world where those on the extremes can make change that those in the center cannot, liberals will have to learn that they sometimes gain more when they say less.
The one thing I would add is that while I agree with that last bit of advice to liberals, I think it mostly applies to the idea that arguments with conservatives that are based on policy are unproductive. But whenever there is an opportunity to expose them to the subjective reality of people they care about (ie, when objective policy becomes real people's lives), there is an opening for change.

As an example, I would point to the great Harvey Milk as the person who most single-handedly started the great movement towards GLBT equality. And how did he do that? By calling on his gay and lesbian friends to come out of the closet. Once you love and care about someone who is oppressed, things change.

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