The Changing Politics of Incarceration?

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, once known as "Chain Gang Charlie" for his tough-on-crime stance, surprised many when he embraced the cause of restoring voting rights for ex-convicts, not least because this was a move that in theory cut against the political interests of Crist's Republican allies. Yet this was of a piece with Crist's broader shift to the political center, which has proven politically advantageous given rising anti-GOP sentiment in Florida and nationwide. Other Republicans, most of them evangelical conservatives, have also called for a less punitive approach to incarceration. Meanwhile, New York Governor David Paterson is pressing for a reform of the state's controversial Rockefeller drug laws, a step that would have been considered politically suicidal for a liberal Democrat in years past. So what comes next?

During the presidential campaign, both Obama and McCain mostly steered clear of debating the merits of different approaches to criminal justice, which was striking given the prominence of the issue in past elections. Bill Clinton demonstrated his bona fides as a death penalty advocate by presiding over the execution of the retarded prisoner Ricky Ray Rector in 1992, an execution that, after a 2002 Supreme Court decision, would now be considered unconstitutional. Many credit George H.W. Bush's decisive victory over Michael Dukakis to his aggressive criticism of Dukakis's support for a prison furlough program in Massachusetts. And so on.

Now, however, there is a growing intellectual consensus that years of punitive policies have backfired, i.e., that mass incarceration has exacerbated the problems posed by concentrated poverty, and that these problems contribute to America's persistently high crime rate. To be sure, rising incarceration rates paralleled a steady decrease in violent crime in recent years. But some suggest that the changing age structure of the population and other demographic factors were the key driver.

Earlier today, Cato Unbound published an essay on mass incarceration by Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University and erstwhile neoconservative who has emerged as a quirky and insightful progressive thinker. At the heart of Loury's essay is the notion that mass incarceration is inimical to what he calls civic inclusion. Also released today is a more narrowly-tailored policy brief by Jim Kessler in the center-left Democracy Journal. Kessler begins by arguing that in light of the economic downturn and the coming release of a large number of ex-offenders incarcerated under harsh sentencing laws imposed in the 1980s and 1990s, we're on the verge of a spike in crime. His central thesis is that because crime "mutates" like a virus, the approach that worked in the 1990s isn't the right approach for dealing with a potential upsurge in crime now. Like Loury, Kessler favors a less punitive approach, one focused on reintegrating ex-offenders into the economic mainstream.

But will this approach survive first contrast with a real crime wave? It seems just as likely that "Chain Gang Charlie" will return.