Traditionally, prison reform has been a liberal issue, associated with civil rights activists troubled by the extreme racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, and with drug decriminalization advocates who emphasize the high cost of drug prohibition. But without much notice, that picture has begun to change. These days, the right is leading the charge to reduce the U.S. prison population.
According to John Hopkins’s David Dagan and Steve Teles, writing in the Washington Monthly, the change is not primarily due to economic constraints. The change started in the early 2000s, with major conservative-led reforms passing in Texas in 2007, when times were flush, and states weren’t facing draconian budget cuts of the kind they’ve been forced to implement recently.
Why this unusual step for conservatives? Apparently, it's due to "an alliance" between libertarian types who question all state power and Republicans who've been thrown in the clink.
The latter group was brought into the fold because of two activists who served time in prison: Charles Colson, a former Nixon aide convicted for his role in Watergate, and Pat Nolan, a former Republican legislator in California who was put away on corruption charges.
The old truism remains: conservatives tend to be inward-looking (my values, my money, my experience of the world) and progressives tend to be outward-looking (their parody being that they have no spine because they're so concerned with pluralism they can't bring themselves to fight for anything).
But if real, bipartisan prison reform can't move forward without convincing the conservatives (who don't wonder "what's it like to be in prison?" but "what's it like for me to be in prison?") then the solution is clear: Lock 'em up!