Steve Teles ranks among America’s leading academic experts on the application of conservative ideas to problems of governance. He chronicled the rise of the conservative legal movement in a 2010 book. This spring, he and co-author David Dagan have released a new study: Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration.
Not a conservative himself, Teles writes as a sympathetic outsider, always looking for ways to bridge ideological gaps in the service of better policy. With the Cato Institute’s W. Brink Lindsey, Teles has long co-chaired and co-hosted a monthly seminar that steps outside the usual perimeters to bring together not only conservatives and liberals—but also libertarians and socialists—for discussions that are simultaneously unusually frank and unusually practical. I’ve been an occasional participant myself, so I have to disclose that I’ve received four or five free meals from Teles’s funders. Until they start serving better wine, however, I consider my intellectual independence uncorrupted.
I interviewed Teles by email in late June.
David Frum: Let’s start with the thesis embedded in your subtitle. Is it indeed true that conservatives have turned against mass incarceration? I can think of a few who haven’t.
Steve Teles: It is certainly true that there are a few conservatives who are still holding out against the reform spirit in the GOP, most notably Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. And in general, Republican legislators who have been in office a long time and have a record of supporting measures like mandatory minimums are going to be less eager to reverse field than those with a fresh record. There are also states where the GOP leadership is still pretty hostile to reform, like Virginia—in purple states the temptation is very strong to cling to the old criminal-justice orthodoxy. But the list of people who have, at least minimally, signed on, is much more impressive. Readers can consult the list of the signatories to the “Right on Crime” statement of principles. You’ll see a lot of names of prominent Republicans, including many—like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Asa Hutchison, and Ed Meese—who were important figures in building our system of mass incarceration in the first place. And the most important evidence is the list of bright red states like Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia that have passed major reforms over the last few years. I think it’s fair to say that reform is much closer to being GOP orthodoxy now—especially in the states—than the old tough on crime stance is.