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A Modest Theory of Why Conservatives Suddenly Champion Criminal Justice Reform

Gage Skidmore | flickr creative commons

For decades, conservatives enthusiastically backed ballooning prison budgets as an exception to their opposition to big-government big spending. Why, then, would prominent conservatives including Texas Governor Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and even the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) abruptly discover religious values and fiscal conservatism to reverse their previous get-tough harshness on those most emotionally profitable of issues, drugs and crime?

I’ve argued it’s a grave mistake to assume that principles, or even political calculations, drive modern policy debates. One can arrive at better explanations by examining divisive visceral and tribal motives: that is, upholding the interests of people identified as “like us” and rejecting those of people “not like us.”

Given the historic trends of punitive crime policy, understanding the conversion of far-right leaders to moderating the War on Drugs, reducing prisoner numbers, and reforming racial biases in the criminal justice system requires examining political motives stemming from the changing demographics of prison populations.

The Tea-Party base is overwhelmingly middle-aged or elderly, and white, a key constituency that drives conservative leaders’ political positions. Twenty-five years ago, an African American man, Willie Horton’s, raping and beating of white victims was the most publicized image of crime. Republicans (and many Democrats) courted aging white voters by pushing drug, policing, and prison-filling crackdowns aimed at inner-city minorities.

Ivy Dawned | flickr creative commons

However, a major result of tough-on-crime policies has been so startling it still can’t be openly discussed because it challenges the talking points of powerful interests: Since 1990, the fastest growing incarcerated population by far has been white people ages 40 and older.

In 1990, there were more than twice as many African Americans under age 30 (160,000) than non-Latino white persons aged 40 and older (70,000) in state and federal prisons. In 2013, prison numbers had reversed: 187,000 young African Americans and 246,000 older whites. Per-capita, African Americans remain substantially more likely to be imprisoned, but the face of the new prisoner is white and older.

California, unlike federal agencies, reports arrestees by race and Latino ethnicity. In 1990, 24,000 non-Latino, white Californians ages 40 and older were arrested for felonies (including 5,000 for drugs); in 2013, that number grew to 53,000 (20,000 involving drugs). The doubling in older, white, felony arrestees accompanied a decline of 100,000 in felony arrests of Latino and African Americans under age 30.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious contributor to the surge in arrests of older white people. In 1990, around 3,000 non-Latino, white Americans ages 40 and older died from overdoses of illicit drugs; in 2013, nearly 22,000.

Eric Molina | flickr creative commons

A seven-fold increase in illicit drug deaths, a doubling in felony arrests in California, and a 350 percent prison population increase among white people 40 and older nationwide since 1990 (all many times higher than the predicted 40 percent increase in that population as a whole) — these are all powerful indicators of larger explosions in older white drug abuse and crime involvement.

It’s highly likely that today, many more hundreds of thousands or millions of conservative adherents and leaders have family members, friends, and colleagues suffering drug abuse, arrest, and incarceration. Conservatives’ remarkable change of heart toward drug and prison reforms coincides with the rapidly rising numbers of older whites getting into trouble.

Cynically stated, the political Right was fine with “get tough on drugs and crime” when younger African Americans and Latinos dominated those being punished. But now, when many more older white Americans are getting arrested and locked up, they suddenly discover (as Newt Gingrich declares) the “urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population” and clamor for reform.

Similarly, liberal-instigated reforms to legalize marijuana and moderate drug and crime policies also coincide with dramatically increased older-white involvement in the criminal justice system, a reality masked by the valid point long argued by progressives that black and Hispanic involvement remains higher by rate.

But I also doubt the political shift toward reform is calculatedly based on studied analyses showing older whites are increasingly victimized by anti-drug and -crime policies. No one has openly ventured into that social-policy minefield. However, if my theory is correct, it shows how much we remain enchained to tribalism and gut-level reactions to race, age, and class when designing ostensibly reasoned social policies.

Keywords: criminal justice reform, drug policy, politics, Tea Party, white crime

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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