The Conservative War on Prisons and the Future of “Bipartisan” Reform

For decades, conservative politicians cleaned up at the polls by championing tough-on-crime policies that swelled America’s prison population to gulag-like levels. But in the last few years, outside the view of the national press, a grassroots counterrevolution has occurred, led by right-wing policy intellectuals, that is fundamentally changing conservative attitudes about crime and punishment. Instead of promoting harsher sentences as a bulwark against disorder, more and more conservatives are challenging the prison-industrial complex as a statist abomination that wastes taxpayer dollars and countenances homosexual rape.

In the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles chart this unexpected sea-change in conservative thinking, explaining not only how it creates the first significant opening in years for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, but also acts as a potential model for how progressive reform is likely to happen in an era of extreme partisanship. Most of us assume that bipartisanship involves middle-of-the-road politicians brokering “center-out” compromises. But if the new conservative thinking on crime is any indication, progress on tough policy issues will most likely come not from squishy moderates working in a rapidly-vanishing center, but from partisans rethinking their old positions, for their own reasons, guided by their own ideological lights.

Read a sneak preview of “The Conservative War on Prisons” here.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.