To hear state representative Jerry Madden describe it, his effort to shrink Texas’s sprawling, 170,000-inmate prison system was pretty simple. “I figured we could either speed people coming out, or slow them down going in,” says the hulking, always-smiling engineer-turned-legislator. “We chose to slow them down going in, and that’s saved $2 billion for taxpayers.” Madden’s formula for reforming America’s second-largest state-prison system has had a great influence on conservative Republicans around the country.
As recently as 15 years ago, conservatives almost uniformly called for building more prisons, increasing criminal penalties, extending the length of prison sentences, and eliminating programs that allowed offenders to remain outside of penitentiaries. Now that’s changed, and leaders with sterling right-of-center credentials have embraced new thinking about crime and prisons that picks up on many concerns once more closely associated with the Left. The new approach, organized around a loose coalition called Right on Crime, emphasizes stricter parole and probation in return for shorter sentences, the reform of sentencing practices, diverting low-level offenders away from prison, involving victims in offenders’ lives, in-prison drug-treatment and literacy programs, faith-based rehabilitation, a reduction in the overall number of criminal laws, and a slower pace of prison construction.
Conservatives, in short, have come to realize that ever-increasing prison populations and ever-harsher penalties are wasting taxpayers’ money and destroying lives. While some of these new policies may seem relatively “soft on crime,” a look at the results, and at the circumstances that gave rise to them, reveals an embrace of conservative principles, not an abandonment of them.
There’s no doubt that the nation’s corrections systems have changed in the past several decades, and changed most drastically under conservative leaders. According to the Pew Center on the States, in 2009, for the first time since 1972, America’s state-prison-inmate population (about 1.4 million) declined slightly. Reform efforts have taken place in every part of the country, mostly with leadership from Republicans popular with the party’s conservative base. Beyond Texas’s $2 billion reduction in its corrections budget, South Carolina under former governor Mark Sanford trimmed about $241 million from the state corrections budget, while conservative governors including Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal have announced sweeping initiatives to change sentencing laws, reform probation, and stem the growth of prison systems. Even in California, where harsh sentencing laws and powerful corrections unions created the nation’s biggest prison system, the total inmate count declined 2.5 percent between 2008 and 2009 as total prison spending fell. During the same period, only one of the ten largest states, Pennsylvania, saw its jail and prison population grow faster than its overall population.