Prison system reform is of interest to individuals across political parties. There is significant agreement that the prison system is overwhelmed, inefficient, and ill-equipped to face the demands it is currently bearing. There is little consensus across or even within political parties as to how the American prison system itself might be improved. The diversity of views among Republicans on the prison system reflects the diverse spectrum of Republican thought on crime, punishment, rehabilitation, and economics, complicated by the paradoxes and contradictions already inherent in these areas. Republicans have traditionally viewed the federally-run prison system in America as a quintessential demonstration of big government ineffectively and inefficiently running through taxpayer dollars, although others have argued that it is Republican positions on crime and sentencing that have led to the overburdened prison system in the first place.
Prison Reform and Traditional Republican Views
The Republican platform has long included (implicitly and explicitly) a “tough on crime” ethos, perhaps most notably captured in the public imagination by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan. Nixon’s administration, which attributed crime in part to legal “permissiveness” and vowed to end soft law enforcement practices, also used unrelenting rhetoric in regards to punishing drug crimes. Regan, two presidencies later, supported 1986 legislation providing for mandatory minimum sentencing on drug crimes. This legislation was touted means of not only protecting the public but also as a strong deterrent to would-be criminals. (Democratic President Bill Clinton would go on to initiate the era of “Three-Strike” laws for criminals, but the Republican platform has largely retained its association with stricter sentencing and deterrence.) The first mandatory minimum sentencing legislation in American jurisprudence history, The Boggs Act, was passed in 1952 under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Republicans typically support reduced government spending, which has de facto included cuts to (or lack of support for) spending on rehabilitation programs in prisons and has often reinforced the public perception that Republicans support prison as a mechanism of punishment and deterrence over rehabilitation, which is not necessarily the case. As social science research has increasingly produced data strongly indicated that drug crimes in particular are more effectively reduced when affected individuals participate in treatment programs, more Republicans have become proponents of prison system reform. However, successfully implementing rehabilitative programs such as job and vocational training, drug and alcohol treatment, and mental healthcare (initiatives which many Republicans support) requires extensive government funding and also increased personnel, management, and oversight.
Republicans and Prison Privatization
Prison privatization (which many have viewed as antithetical to reform) has been widely supported by the Republican establishment, which views the private sector as better able and more appropriately positioned to efficiently and cost effectively manage prison operations than the government. Opponents of prison privatization point out that for-profit management interests are antithetical to the larger goals of the prison system, and that private financial interest in prison operations comes at the expense of prisoners and, ultimately, the public to which those prisoners will eventually return. Republicans typically support prison privatization as a means of decreasing government overhead and scope, which is an important part of most Republican platforms. Additionally, the Republican Party has generally been understood as more empathetic to business interests across industries and less inclined to pursue increased regulations on the private sector. President Trump has received significant financial support from the private prison sector, and under his selection for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has announced that the planned phase-out of privatized prison contracts by the federal government will no longer be implemented. Additionally, there has been speculation that in terms of sheer volume, privatized prisons would be absolutely necessary to carry out the detention of persons held under President Trump’s immigration actions. However, a number of pending lawsuits regarding the safety and security of private prison facilities may impact the immediate future of private prison contracts.
Social Empathy and the Prison System
A particularly significant factor in the diversity of Republican views on the prison system is due to distinctions and gradations in religious beliefs. According to The Pew Research Center, faith beliefs—specifically, Christian ones—are more likely to play a role in the sociopolitical positions of Republicans than in those of Democrats or Independents. Beliefs that traditionally underpin attitudes towards crime and punishment, such as one’s views on forgiveness and redemption, are hardly universals across Christian denominations, but they are significant nonetheless. The rise of Compassionate Conservatism as a quasi-political sub distinction during Republican George W. Bush’s presidency called for increased compassion and social empathy for struggling Americans (including the incarcerated) while maintaining conservative Republican principles such as limited government and local autonomy. The religious beliefs of most Republicans are strong moral imperatives to extend compassion towards those who are struggling, which translates to a renewed interest in the prison system as a rehabilitative mechanism and not just a punitive one, especially as there is increasing general acceptance that social, economic, and biological factors beyond an individual’s control often contribute significantly to criminal behavior.
Standard prison practices such as solitary confinement, restraint, and other means of behavior management are considered by some religious Republicans (as well as many others) to undermine fundamental conservative principles about personhood and morality. Individuals of color are disproportionately represented in prison populations and particularly within isolated confinement, and some Republicans argue that this inequality represents in and of itself a moral crisis on the part of the larger society. Part of prison reform seeks to end these practices and place more emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment, a view that for some seems at odds with the “tough on crime” principle. How, some argue, can the relatively gentle ideas of treatment and rehabilitation all the while receiving “three hots and a cot” (a reference to inmates receive three hot meals and a bed to sleep in all at the expense of the state/taxpayers) serve as a deterrent for individuals who already have seemingly demonstrated they have nothing to lose?
In the 21st century, there are few Americans who—regardless of race, class, neighborhood, or political party—have not been in some way touched by crime and the prison system. Republicans have struggled to reconcile their traditional dedication to small government and reduced federal spending with conservative moral principles about human rights, forgiveness, and social justice.
- Private Prisons Back Trumo and Could See Big Payoffs with New Policies – USA Today
- Pew Research Center – Party Affiliation
- A Conservative Case for Prison Reform – NY Times
- Fact Sheet: Compassionate Conservatism – The White House Archives
- Democratic Views on Prison Reform
- Republican Views On Crime
- Republican Views on Drugs
- Democratic Views on Drugs
- Democratic Views On Crime
- Democratic Views on the Death Penalty
- Democratic Views On Social Security
- Democratic Views On Stem Cell Research
- Democratic Views on Medicare
- Libertarian Views on Education