Conservatives supporting publicly subsidized lawyers for the poor? At the CPAC conference, yet? Wait, April Fool’s day is still two weeks away!

Over at Ten Miles Square, David Dagan has filed a report that is surprising, to say the least. At a panel on wrongful convictions, participants including the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Mark Levin and the Constitution Project’s Christopher Durocher strongly advocated for more public resources for public defenders. More amazing yet, the audience didn’t come after them with pitchforks. According to Dagan, they responded with nods and words of assent, and even an “amen.”

Interestingly, just yesterday the New York Times published an incredibly depressing story about how the so-called right of poor people to a lawyer has become a heap of smoking ruins. One source is quoted as saying that “Most Americans don’t realize that you can have your home taken away, your children taken away and you can be a victim of domestic violence but you have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect you.” According to the article, “80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet.” What’s particularly gauling is, in spite of this huge unmet need for legal services, many lawyers and recent law school grads can’t find jobs.

At the CPAC conference, participants were supporting conservative and libertarian-type solutions to fill poor people’s legal needs, such as vouchers and what sounds like quasi-privatization (mediation in lieu of regular court hearings). Still, it’s quite remarkable to hear conservatives supporting any spending on the poor whatsoever. Last year in the WaMo, Dagan and Steven Teles published this excellent article, which described a growing movement on the part of some right-wing operatives against the prison industrial complex. The conservative anti-prison activists have been primarily motivated by the desire to slash state budgets (and, of course, neutralize powerful public employees’ unions). But of course actively spending taxpayer dollars on poor people is something else altogether.

It’s hard for me to see conservatives en masse following the lead of these activists and forcefully supporting significant increases in legal services for the poor. It’s just not in the DNA of American conservatives to support government spending on poor people, I’m afraid. If they scream bloody murder over essentials like food and health care, why would they feel differently about lawyers? And wouldn’t said lawyers then become that dreaded class of so-called government dependents that conservatives so thoroughly despise?

But who knows; maybe we just need to peal off a few conservatives and that would be enough to form a legislative majority to secure funding. The conservative anti-prison movement in general is quite fascinating, and I strongly urge that you read the Dagan/Teles article to learn more about it. Now, if we could only get more Democrats on board for prison reform. I fear that Democrats have held back on these issues because too many of them are scared witless that they will be painted with outdated “soft on crime” stereotypes. But I think they’re wrong. As is often the case, voters are probably ahead of the politicians here.

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Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee