Around the country and here in West Virginia, more and more people are taking a second look at the criminal justice system. Many people across the political spectrum have started to notice the downside of mass incarceration. They are looking for workable ways to protect the public while reducing the many costs, human and financial, of the current system.
The interesting thing is that a lot of the energy and ideas to take on this task are coming from political conservatives, including those from the libertarian as well as evangelical wings of the movement. The title of a recent article in the Washington Monthly is "The Conservative War on Prisons."
That title might seem strange at first, given that politicians of the right and their imitators have ridden the lock-em-up wave with considerable success for several decades. On the other hand, there are a lot of traditional conservative values that contribute to a critique of prisons. Here are some right (no pun intended) off the bat:
* A major theme of conservative thought is a critique of expensive and inefficient bureaucracies and their irrationalities. Why should prisons get a pass when every other institution is fair game?
* Conservatives of a libertarian bent are all about weaning people from dependence on the state. There is nothing as statist as having several million people, many of whom pose little threat to public safety, under the supervision of government to one degree or another in the criminal justice system.
* For Christian conservatives, the ideas of sin, repentance and redemption are part of the overall package.
* For those concerned about traditional morality, the idea of consigning young people to institutions in which many are raped and sexually abused -- with far reaching consequences -- is a cause for concern.
But don't take my word for it. Consider the words of Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan from a 2011 Washington Post op-ed: "There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential.... The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it."