The Conservative Case For Prison Reform

Jeremy Cady, my first meeting was on the green grass near the Missouri Capitol. The spring of 2009 was when a few capitol reporters, staffers and elected officials would gather to kick a soccer ball on a rectangle section of grass that was often unused. We’d play three-on-three, or four-on-four, depending on how many would show up. Cady and me guarded one another because we both were big and slow and had poor soccer skills.

I was a capital correspondent for the state’s largest newspaper, The Post-Dispatch; Cady was a Republican staff member in the house—though he would eventually leave state government and go to work for Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian political organization funded by the Koch Brothers.
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And some nine years removed from those capitol lawn soccer games, Cady emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in speaking about the debtors’ prison columns I was writing for the St. Louis Post-DispatchAt an Americans for Prosperity St. Charles County event. (Until that point in my career, any of my writing on the Koch Brothers or Americans for Prosperity was hardly positive—to say the least, we were strange bedfellows.) There are many Missouri Republicans used a catchy name, but it was demeaning for me as my employer. The Post-DisgraceIt was a clever way of referring to the paper’s liberal views as. But as I wrote about rural Missourians who were caught in the never-ending cycle of abuse that criminalized poverty fosters, I’d often received letters that began with some version of this: “I normally disagree with your columns, but…” They were invariably from readers on the right side of the aisle.

I came across a common issue in the middle of the most divided political climates that my entire life.

Around the same time I was invited to speak to the AFP group, Missouri’s Republican governor Mike Parson had proposed closing a state prison. This was an idea that several Missouri governors had considered in the past, as Missouri tried to manage its growing corrections budget. At the time, there was a prison population that exceeded 32,000.

In 2010, Matt Bartle, a former representative had made the same proposal but it was rejected. After the Great Recession had ended, Missouri like many other states saw its revenue plummet. Missouri had a deficit of $1 billion by 2010, even though it was not eligible for federal aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Continue reading: The True History of America’s Private Prison Industry

Missouri’s incarceration rate of 859 people per 100,000 of total population had been steadily climbing since the late 1970s, making it the tenth highest such rate in the nation. Its corrections budget had shown a similar rise: Between 2001 and 2008, for instance, the corrections budget rose 65 percent, eating up an increasing percentage of the state’s budget.

Bartle, a thin, bespectacled attorney, is a conservative in the William F. Buckley mode, which is to say he’s intellectual about his limited-government beliefs. His conclusion was simple: Missouri had too many inmates. There was no way to fix the state’s budget problems without closing a prison.

“One thing was clear—we were all agreed it was time to rethink criminal justice and incarceration,” Bartle told me of a consensus that was then seemingly apparent in the state’s legislature. “Both the right and the left thought so.”

“We did not do a very good job of moving the best ideas out of the room into law,” Bartle remembers—despite the leadership and support of a bipartisan group of lawmakers and judges, including key members of the majority Republican Party, there would be no prison closed that year. “But it was a reminder to me that people can get excited and innovative.”

In the decade to follow, the state’s corrections budget continued to climb. Both the jail population and those in prison increased, but not decreased. The phenomenon occurred not only in Missouri but also across the United States. The United States is still the nation with the highest rate of prisoner incarceration. And like Bartle, lawmakers in various states and the federal government, post–Great Recession, realized that they couldn’t keep allowing corrections budgets to increase unchecked year after year.

Secure wall on a prison
Marianne Purdie—Getty Images

St. Charles County, Missouri’s most rural county, is at the crossroads of the urban-rural divide which often drives political divisions in this state. It is home to high gun ownership and low taxes. In 2016, more than 60% of the county’s voters voted for Trump. But when it comes to the debtors’ prison issue that I was at the Americans For Prosperity group to talk about, however, St. Charles County bucks conservative orthodoxy.

You might be issued a bill for time spent in jail, just like in any other Missouri rural county. But unlike most, St. Charles County takes a person’s ability to pay into consideration.

“Our general rule of thumb is if the person is indigent—which is about 80 percent of our defendants—we don’t try to collect,” says St. Charles County prosecuting attorney Tim Lohmar, a Republican. (That number of poor defendants—80 percent—is not unusual. A variety of studies has shown this to be the number of U.S. citizens who are charged with crimes and can receive a public Defender. It is a fair definition for someone living in poverty.

Continue reading: The Vote Doesn’t Count, Your Body Does. How prison gerrymandering distorts political representation

Missouri is one of the few states that does not take into consideration their ability to pay when they charge court costs and fees, or board bills. Tony Lovasco, a Republican state representative told me this at the Americans For Prosperity conference. Lovasco is a member of the state’s House Special Committee on Criminal Justice. That committee would later hear, and pass, a bill that made it illegal to put people in jail who couldn’t afford to pay for court fines and fees, including board bills.

Here’s the truth about Lovasco and his fellow conservatives that night: They got it. They understood and cared about the injustice of their fellow Missourians being jailed again simply because they couldn’t afford the bill they received for previous time spent in jail. Many people saw double jeopardy as the practice of punishing two individuals for similar minor offences. Some people saw it as an indirect tax.

They helped answer a question that had been bugging me ever since I started writing a series of columns on American debtors’ prisons. Is it possible that conservatives joined liberals to advocate criminal justice reform? This was especially true when it came to the criminalization of poverty by the judiciary system.

Marc Levin is chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice, and senior advisor to Right on Crime Initiative (which he co-developed at Texas Public Policy Foundation). He speaks in a language understood by conservatives about the tyranny of government and the deprivation of liberty by courts that don’t take into consideration the civil rights protections for the people who come before judges but can’t afford to pay the costs heaped upon them.

“I think it is important to both utilize coalitions across ideological lines… but also continue to have both conservative and liberal groups each speak to their own constituencies, both within the public and among policymakers,” Levin says.

Continue reading: Americans Aren’t Supposed to Be Jailed Before Trial Just Because They Can’t Make Bail. This happens all the time

America must win its so-called War on Poverty if it is to be successful. The criminal justice system should lead the charge, and have a growing focus from those who are in charge to ensure civil rights for the many people often exploited by a system that is more concerned with tax collection than maintaining safety of local communities. Each judge, each prosecutor, and every public defense attorney in America must think about the following questions before making a final decision on the misdemeanors or traffic cases that they are forced to deal with every day. Can they afford to pay all the fees and fines the statutes require? Is it safer to jail this person? What must be done to make sure every defendant in this courtroom has their civil rights defended in the same way, regardless of if they have money, or don’t?

There are solutions currently making their way through both the courts and state capitols—all with some form of bipartisan support: Getting rid of cash bail, and ending the practice of putting people back in jail if they can’t afford a bill for their previous stay. (Better yet, don’t charge poor people for their time behind bars at all.)

States should stop using fees and court fines to generate primary revenues for their local government. They also need to limit the revenue that cities and counties collect from tickets, court fines, or fees. Taking this concept a step further, Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella in early 2021 wrote the nation’s credit-rating agencies and asked them to take into consideration a city’s reliance on fines and fees for revenue when considering municipal bond ratings.

These ideas are not radical and have all been supported by legislators in both Democratic and Republican-leaning States. They must be implemented nationally in order to make them effective. This will mean that lawmakers have to confront the possibility of losing the income sources that they depend on to benefit their constituents, who are living in poverty.

In a free America, justice cannot be sold. Until the country elevates that value, Lady Justice isn’t blind, and her scales are completely out of balance.

St. Martin’s Press



Source: Profit and Punishment: America’s Criminalization of the Poor for the Sake of Justice Tony Messenger Copyright © 2021. Available from St. Martin’s Press.



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