David Cameron’s British Conservative Party has placed radical prison reform at the heart of its compassionate agenda, and is enjoying double-digit opinion poll leads. The Bush Administration largely abandoned not only its popular early rhetoric to improve prison conditions, but also its key insight that government agencies cannot solve social problems or dictate morality. It ended with record-low approval ratings and bequeathed to John McCain an impossible political environment.
Perhaps these developments are unrelated. More likely, they illustrate the importance of translating compassionate conservatism into serious policy initiatives, instead of viewing the term simply as an electorally expedient slogan to be discarded once in office.
Just as Bush sought to empathize with juvenile offenders on the presidential campaign trail in 2000, Cameron has placed youth criminality in the wider context of social breakdown. Critics on the left view this as a superficial exercise in rebranding; critics on the right sneeringly claim that he wants to “hug a hoodie.”
In reality, Cameron’s devotion to social responsibility and his consciously un-Thatcherite focus on the importance of society (as opposed to the state or the individual) are grounded in a coherent philosophy, recognizably conservative yet responsive to the concerns of an affluent but anxious and over-centralized 21st century Britain.
Thus Jesse Norman, Senior Fellow at the Cameron-friendly Policy Exchange think-tank, stresses the importance of “connected society,” a delicately evolving network of trust and reciprocity which cannot be controlled from above by the state, nor reduced to a collection of purely self-interested economic actors.
In this context, compassion describes the sphere of belonging, of neighborhood, voluntary association, faith, and social enterprise. It drives us to support and extend institutions that carry on distinct traditions and give meaning to our lives.
It’s not difficult to see how this understanding of a compassionate society, governed by principles of freedom, decentralization and accountability, can be applied to Britain’s crumbling, overcrowded and violent jails.
If stifling central and local bureaucracies are locking out what Bush once referred to as “members of the armies of compassion,” then conservatives will create the conditions for a decentralized system in which prison governors are freed from state control to commission voluntary groups and charities to provide rehabilitation services.
To balance this new freedom, prison governors will be given responsibility – and therefore accountability – for the entire process of offender management. Their work will be incentivized by a new payment-by-results scheme, whereby extra money (that would otherwise be spent on convicting and accommodating repeat offenders) will be awarded for reduced levels of recidivism. Locally elected crime commissioners could ultimately be given control of reformed and independent police and prison systems.
The possibility for this “rehabilitation revolution” will be created by selling off old Victorian jails to expand and rejuvenate the prison system. This should result in a network of smaller, local prisons tailored to the specific needs of their communities. Research suggests that prisoners who live closer to home and maintain family ties are far less likely to re-offend.
In a move that Conservative writer Tim Montgomerie has called the “And” theory of compassionate conservatism, this emphasis on rehabilitation and localism is counterbalanced by more traditional Tory messages on crime. Inmates will receive improved treatment and be made to compensate victims of their crimes through contributions to a Victims’ Fund, paid through hard work in prison. Prisons will become more humane places of restoration and foreign criminals will be deported at a faster rate.
Paradoxically, the stated aim of Cameron’s (conservative) determination to expand prison capacity is the (liberal) goal of reducing the prison population. By fundamental reform along the principles of decentralization, clear accountability, greater use of the voluntary and private sectors, and introducing performance-based financial incentives, it is hoped that recidivism rates hovering around American levels of 65% will be significantly reduced. In the long-term, this will mean fewer criminals committing fewer crimes. The result: a safer society with a smaller prison population. This logic reflects Conservative policy chief Oliver Letwin’s aspiration to achieve so-called progressive ends with conservative means.
Of course, the task of prison reform in America will require different solutions. But with the notable exception of Sam Brownback, the Republican Party’s silence on the issue is not just morally problematic, but electorally catastrophic. If you pass tough-on-crime laws which disproportionately incarcerate the very constituencies you are already badly losing, and then refuse to ensure basic decency in prisons, don’t be surprised to lose elections again and again. And no, the belated signing into law of the Second Chance Act, which lavishes more federal money on failing prisons, will not be sufficient.
By contrast, Cameron’s prison reform plans are suggestive of the contours of a broad, thoughtful compassionate conservatism. In diverse policy areas from education to welfare to criminal justice to energy, such a program aims to reform institutions of the state into entities that more accurately reflect the nature and needs of the neighborhoods they serve. It will support and foster the growth of what Edmund Burke called society’s “little platoons.” It will emphasize the interrelationship between social wellbeing, the family and economic success. Above all, it will connect with the aspirations and concerns of poor and working-class people.
While this agenda has been derided on both sides of the Atlantic as an abandonment of core conservative principles, it is more properly seen as the deepening of a transatlantic conversation that has yielded great success in the past. With a bloated, ineffectual prison system that imprisons 1 American out of every 100, penal reform is a good place for Republicans to rejoin the debate.