The Corner

Progress on Prison Reform

Clouds can have silver linings, and bad bills can contain some admirable features. So it was, on the subject of federal prison reform, with the omnibus appropriations bill recently signed into law — a bloated bill many conservatives rightly opposed.

First, some background. Eight days ago, Betsy Woodruff did a superb piece here on the bipartisan push for national prison reform. With prisons overflowing, it is not just liberals but national conservative stalwarts such as Grover Norquist, David Keene, Tony Perkins, and Richard Viguerie who are pushing for alternative sentencing options for non-violent offenders.

This movement partially dovetails with a trans-ideological effort, spearheaded on the right by Ed Meese and the Heritage Foundation, to combat federal “overcriminalization” and various forms of prosecutorial abuse. While conservatives for good reason tend to approve of tough-minded prosecutors intent on maintaining law and order, conservatives also are historically wary of the misuse of government power — and of excessive spending when the public good can be accomplished by more efficient means.

All of which is to say that conservatives should be pleased at one provision in the bad spending bill, pushed by the always-thoughtful Representative Frank Wolf (R., Va.), that creates a Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. The bipartisan panel will look at sentencing alternatives, at prison-safety issues, and at studying and copying successful state models for reducing recidivism and promoting rehabilitation.

“We are now spending more to house prisoners than investing in the sciences,” Wolf said in a press release. “This needs to be addressed.”

This effort is part of a broader interest, as outlined by Wolf in a speech last year at the American Enterprise Institute to find ways (consistent with conservative principles) to “help the poor and vulnerable.”

Conservatives would do well to keep in mind these concerns, consonant with the passionate advocacy of the late, great Jack Kemp, to provide opportunity and means for marginalized citizens to improve their lots in life. The new task force on federal corrections might help make important strides in one front of this battle.