There’s been a push to bring Florida into the “right on crime” movement, which aims to cut prison costs by increasing programs like drug treatment and job training for prisoners, thereby reducing recidivism – and ultimately cutting costs for taxpayers.
Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader and one of the movement’s most vocal supporters, has said that meaningful reform of the criminal justice system, which has long been supported by some on the left, can only be credible if it’s supported by conservatives with solid tough-on-crime credentials. It’s a convergence of interests across ideological lines, aligning the fiscally conservative goal of reducing spending and the progressive goal of breaking the cycle of incarceration of nonviolent offenders, which disproportionately affects minorities.
This weekend in the New York Times, law professor Michelle Alexander offered a critique of that allignment, saying that under the logic of right on crime (which she never mentions by name), “money trumps civil rights.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, shocked many earlier this year when he co-wrote an essay for The Washington Post calling on “conservative legislators to lead the way in addressing an issue often considered off-limits to reform: prisons.”
Republican governors had already been sounding the same note. As California was careering toward bankruptcy last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lamented that more money was being spent on prisons than on education. Priorities “have become out of whack over the years,” he said. “What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?” Another Republican governor, John R. Kasich of Ohio, recently announced support for reducing penalties for nonviolent drug offenders as part of an effort to slash the size of the state’s prison population.
A majority of those swept into our nation’s prison system are poor people of color, but the sudden shift away from the “get tough” rhetoric that has dominated the national discourse on crime has not been inspired by a surge in concern about the devastating human toll of mass incarceration. Instead, as Professor Bell predicted, the changing tide is best explained by perceived white interests. In this economic climate, it is impossible to maintain the vast prison state without raising taxes on the (white) middle class.
Given this political reality, it is hardly a surprise to read a headline that says, “N.A.A.C.P. Joins With Gingrich in Urging Prison Reform,” rather than the other way around. If there were ever an illustration of Professor Bell’s theory that whites will support racial justice only to the extent that it is in their interests, this would seem to be it.