That seems to be the question posed by a new outfit called "Right on Crime." Those heading up this group have genuine conservative credentials. Foremost among them is former Reagan administration Attorney General Ed Meese. Also included are Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.
Small government and respect for individual liberty are two of the central principles of conservatism. It seems that Right on Crime asks whether the size of the prison population, the expense of maintaining it, and its rate of growth can be squared with those principles. Accordingly, it is viewed as an ally of convenience by those on the Left who think now, as they have thought for years, that a dime spent on imprisonment is a dime too much, and that "rehabilitation" -- or, as I see it, the mostly phony promise of rehabilitation -- is the answer. Thus Right on Crime is all the rage today on Doug Berman's blog.
When a man of Ed Meese's stature lends his name to this sort of "reform effort," we need to pay attention. I have tried to think it through, and have five observations.
First, the obvious. If we can punish criminals and secure public safety for less money, I'm all for it, as anyone would be. Of course that's a big "if." The rate of recidivism is not zero. When we put criminals back on the street, there's going to be more crime. This is not exactly rocket science, and not surprisingly it is born out by the statistics. We tried the prison-is-bad, rehabilitation-is-good model in the sixties and seventies. What we got for our trouble was a doubling of the crime rate. Conversely, as the prison population has grown considerably over the last 15 or 20 years, the crime rate (and the associated massive human and economic costs of crime) has fallen dramatically -- by more than forty percent.
What we should demand, then, is a study of both the costs of imprisonment, and the costs, in terms of recidivist crime, that early release will bring about.
Second, behind the thinking of Right on Crime is, I suspect, the fact that conservatives see the debt bomb getting ready to explode and are frantic to do something -- anything -- to defuse it. Thus they're willing to put a lot on the table (unlike liberals, who want to keep entitlements as the Sacred Cow of politics and, indeed, add to them, see, e.g., Obamacare). The test of liberal sincerity will be their first serious proposal to significantly cut entitlement spending, which is by far the greatest source of the debt problem. Right on Crime should bear in mind that the entire cost of the criminal justice system is a pitance compared with the crisis in runaway social spending, and insist that we start where the debt problem starts, not where the defense bar would like to pretend it starts.
Third, conservatives distrust the government, and particularly Eric Holder's DOJ. They believe, based on an unfortunately large body of evidence, that DOJ will take a pass on, say, club-wielding "poll watchers" while going after businessmen and white-collar types with, for example, a revised but still sprawling honest services statute.
To be honest, it's not just Eric Holder who's at fault. As I pointed out in Part IV of my post here, business in this country has more than a few problems with honesty. To be blunt, it's laced with sleaze. In the banking meltdown, it was worse than mere sleaze; it was epidemic lying and cheating. With business having made itself a ripe target, those friendly to business (including those sympathetic to Right on Crime) may be getting concerned that the administration is planning to undertake suffocating regulatory enforcement under the guise, and with the force, of criminal law.
Fourth, to the extent conservatives are financially better off than average (and thus among the most heavily taxed), they tend to live and work in places where crime, as we usually think of it, is a minor problem. While, ideologically, conservatives are aligned with crime victims, they may not viscerally "feel it." If inmates are released early, conservatives may subconsciously view it as somebody else's problem.
Finally, given the frustrations with trying to tackle the entrenched massive costs of the welfare state, conservatives might just have had it. Peering out onto the gargantuan size of government and the apparently limitless rate of its growth, some are ready to strike out against it wherever they can, and not be too particular. In this sense, prison "reform" may appear to Right on Crime as life is said to appear to the carpenter who's been at it to long: When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.