Prison reform has until recently been a liberal cause. In the mid 20th century, the anti-punishment Left embraced rehabilitation, not retribution, as the main justification for incarceration. Reformers pushed education, vocational training, and treatment as silver bullets, as if all that criminals needed were therapy and social work. Liberal victimology blamed poverty and ignorance, not criminals’ own choices, for crime.
Conservatives naturally disagreed, refusing to excuse criminals. Crime was a mark of social decay, and law-and-order conservatives such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan campaigned on getting tough. The last thing prisoners needed, they argued, was more social services or special treatment, such as job training or educational privileges.