Two conservative scholars explain why tough on crime policies have failed and argue for a new vision for our justice system
Conservatism is not a monolith. There is no one way to be a conservative, think like a conservative, or define the conservative outlook. But there are certain bedrock principles of those on the right: limited government, economic responsibility and a belief that our founding fathers laid out sacrosanct rights in our constitution. A firm belief in the importance of family, morality and, for some, faith has generally guided the application of these principles. While no party can represent the whole of conservatism, the Republican partys role as the dominant right-of-center force in modern American politics makes it a good place to take ideological temperatures on the right.
When it comes to criminal justice, the Republicans have for decades declared themselves to be the party of law and order. This commitment to tough on crime policies helped it win elections in the latter half of the 20th century, but at the cost of a society in which a third of working-age Americans have criminal records and more than 10 million people go to jail each year. The fact that the United States, with nearly 2.2 million Americans behind bars, incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation is not a point of pride. This shameful position is put in even starker relief when one considers that the nations with the second and third highest number of incarcerated individuals are China and Russia, respectively.
These realities, products of the lock em up and throw away the key sensibility of yesteryear, have tarnished the image of Republicans and conservatives in the minds of many. Though Republicans have greatly increased their political power in recent elections, they have nevertheless alienated many of the fastest growing segments of the electorate, casting a pall across the impressive electoral successes of the past decade.
The extension of conservative principles to criminal justice policies offers a chance to court new constituencies and bring conservative messages to voting blocs that will dominate American politics in the future, all without risking the current base of conservative support. Already, right-leaning organizations, armed with polling data that shows significant backing from many conservatives, are mobilizing on criminal justice issues. Its time to leverage these efforts to rebuild the conservative identity. Perhaps no other policy area holds more potential than criminal justice reform.
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