How do you get ideologues to change their minds? The answer can be found in the conservative movement's turn against mass incarceration.

Author:Schoenfeld, Heather

Prison Break: Why Conservatives Tuned Against Mass Incarceration

by David Dagan and Steven Teles

Oxford University Press, 256 pp.


As we all know, being a Republican or a Democrat comes with a particular set of policy positions. Yet partisan policy positions can change over time. Just look at how Donald Trump is redefining GOP orthodoxy on trade and entitlements. This has been happening on other issues since before Trump even entered the 2016 race. Not long ago, for instance, to be a Republican was to be unequivocally "tough on crime" and in favor of policies to "lock 'em up and throw away the key." But in recent years, Republican governors and legislators in red states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas have spearheaded and passed reforms aimed at reducing imprisonment through programming that Republicans in another era would have considered "coddling criminals." In Congress, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a decarceration bill, has enough bipartisan support that it could conceivably pass before the end of the year. In Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration, David Dagan, a PhD candidate, and Steven Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, have written the first authoritative account of conservatives' repudiation of mass incarceration. While it maybe too soon to claim, as they do, that "the old get-tough frames" have "all but evaporated," their explanation for and evidence of a criminal justice reform trend "sweeping across conservative America" is compelling.

Documented through extensive interviews with an impressive cast of Republican politicians, conservative activists, and criminal justice reformers, Prison Break (which began as a feature story, "The Conservative War on Prisons," in our November/December 2012 issue) is essential reading for those who want to understand how and why "law and order" conservatives came to question the orthodoxy that "prison works" and embrace reform. Dagan and Teles's explanation centers on the piecemeal and strategic building of relationships between Christian conservatives, elite Republicans, libertarian think tanks, and funders over a twenty-year period. Together, they created, invested in, and disseminated new framings of incarceration as a problem for conservative politicians.

Prison Break is a story about how people change their minds. Partisans can come to see things...

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