Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Are conservatives undergoing a "jailhouse conversion" on criminal justice?

Doc Berman points to a fine article from the New York Times on Christmas Day which posits that American conservatives are experiencing a "jailhouse conversion" on criminal justice issues, citing widespread GOP support for the Second Chance Act, one of the few pieces of GOP-backed legislation considered to still have a chance in the new Democratic-led Congress.

Like Doug, whose post includes links to past items on the subject from his Sentencing Law and Policy blog, I've been tracking this trend in Texas for some time, and count many conservative proponents of criminal justice reform around the state as friends and allies. For a lot of folks, though, for whatever reason, a trend doesn't become real until they see it published in the New York Times. So perhaps now's the time to revive some of Grits' recent coverage of this topic as an addendum to the Times' reporting, and Doug's.

To that end, see these prior Grits post on the topic of Texas conservatives backing "compassionate" instead of merely "tuff" criminal justice reforms:
Instrumental to this shift in Texas has been the work of Marc Levin at the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, see:
Levin's a fiscal conservative and is mostly concerned with improving safety outcomes and controlling runaway spending.

When you step back to view this trend from an ideological perspective, though, what's also happening is that many evangelical Christians have become more willing to set aside the classic "culture war" issues to work on issues that affect the poor, foreigners, and the infirm. Meanwhile, losing elections by wide margins has a way of humbling liberal activists, and has made many more willing to work with conservative interests on narrow agendas where they can agree. As it turns out, compassion toward prisoners, like compassion for the sick and for immigrants, is an area where orthodox religious doctrine and modern liberalism can come together on many things.

To me, Texas and American politics are in a dynamic period of change where many of the old ideological labels need to be re-evaluated and perhaps tossed out altogether. This is a rare time when it's possible to debate fundamental goals and values, to potentially move beyond grandstanding and partisan bickering on crime and punishment to focus on solutions. Only time will tell if our state and nation will take that window of opportunity as seriously as it deserves, but IMO it lays before us, waiting, who knows how patiently?

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