The Conservative World View and Prison Populations, Broken Windows.

Tim Carney asks, as a New Year’s resolution, to not to do battle with faceless ideologies. Carney is interjecting into a specific problem, that of the conservative movement and prison population. Carney:

But on Twitter, Serwer repeatedly characterized the “conservative approach to crime” and claimed the “conservative record on crime is clear and easy to evaluate,” dismissing Freire’s objections that such a record might be more complex than he thinks because, well, different conservatives have different views.

This was just another instance of the sort of head-butting we constantly see on blogs. Complaining about “liberals” or “conservatives” being inconsistent is a waste of time.

What Serwer is doing isn’t a gotcha point. A lot of conservative energy, thought, money, infrastructure, ideology and worldview is built around the idea of a high prison population, harsh sentencing minimums, and a casual disregard towards the idea of “Rights” in the maintenance of order, and as such it’s not going to be trivial to pull back on that.

Or to put it a different way, when several friends have mentioned that prison reform might be a GOP priority in 2011, all I can think is “The Tea Party is going to get behind putting young, African-American men back on the streets and back into their communities?  Are we watching the same group of organized, older, affluent-but-vulnerable white men?”

But maybe this will enter the public debate, and as such I need to start organizing my thoughts on it.  Let’s walk through why I think we can think of our current prison population dilemma as a conservative project.  This is a rough draft.

First. Let’s post one of my favorite charts I made in 2010 – we’ll do a top 5 next week! – a cross-section of countries and the strong correlation between their prison population per capita and an index of their “economic freedoms”, with a plot of the United States since 1970 over it:

(Sources: one, two.) There’s been a massive explosion in the rate of prison population in the United States since 1970.  Empirical work has found that states with a Republican governor and Republican legislatures show a greater increase in incarcerated populations, and that the effect is stronger in the 1990s.

Second. I like reading David Frum. One thing that surprised me was that he listed James Q Wilson’s Thinking about Crime (1975) as one of his Top Five Books on Core Conservative Philosophy. Why is this a philosophical book for movement conservatives?

[Frum:] One of the things [Wilson] argued is that the supply of crime is not infinite, that is, the crimes are done by relatively small numbers of people. If you can get those people off the streets – incapacitation is the technical term – you can make a big difference and that’s, in fact, exactly what happened….

Why is this a conservative book?

It’s a conservative book because of its mood. Its mood is unsentimental. It does not believe there is greater virtue at the bottom of society, it doesn’t accept conventional excuses, it doesn’t make racism the centre of the American story. Also, because it’s willing to contemplate the effective use of state punitive power to solve a social problem….

The older conservatives were primarily literary intellectuals – Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver…What the neoconservatives brought to politics was the application of social science to social problems. What made them conservative was, as Mrs Thatcher said, that the facts of life are conservative. They are social scientists, they use social-science methods, they are interested in the governance of society and public policy.

Third.  Let’s leave aside the empirical dubiousness of the Broken Windows approach working.   I want to look at the ideology.  Here’s Wilson popularizing his idea in a very influential 1982 Atlantic Monthly article:

We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed…

The process we call urban decay has occurred for centuries in every city. But what is happening today is different in at least two important respects. First, in the period before, say, World War II, city dwellers- because of money costs, transportation difficulties, familial and church connections—could rarely move away from neighborhood problems…Now mobility has become exceptionally easy for all but the poorest or those who are blocked by racial prejudice. Earlier crime waves had a kind of built-in self-correcting mechanism: the determination of a neighborhood or community to reassert control over its turf….

Second, the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer.

This pattern of policing was not an aberration or the result of occasional excess. From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order—fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior. Solving crimes was viewed not as a police responsibility but as a private one. In the March, 1969, Atlantic, one of us (Wilson) wrote a brief account of how the police role had slowly changed from maintaining order to fighting crimes. The change began with the creation of private detectives (often ex-criminals), who worked on a contingency-fee basis for individuals who had suffered losses. In time, the detectives were absorbed in municipal agencies and paid a regular salary simultaneously, the responsibility for prosecuting thieves was shifted from the aggrieved private citizen to the professional prosecutor. This process was not complete in most places until the twentieth century.

The idea of a police force that solved crimes rather than one that maintained order was the result of the private detectives industry being absorbed into police forces and the professionalization of lawyers and prosecutors. But that was an accident that needs to be fixed.  The police force isn’t there to investigate crimes, present evidence to a prosecutor who then presents evidence to a jury. By the time that is important the rot and decay of social disorder has set in and it is too late.   There are sharp distinctions between “decent folk” and criminals, families and outsiders, etc.

There’s an important rhetorical trick that the Broken Window ideology brought to the table, one that caught progressives off-guard and brought in liberals hook-line-and-sinker.   As Bernard Harcourt has noted, it transforms the idea of offensive acts into harmful acts.   Public drinking and loitering aren’t harms, but they are offensive to some.   Broken Windows allowed people to believe the notion that offensive behavior created (by creating the potentials for and inevitability of) legal harms.   It also became backwards compatible, with people being able to think that harmful acts were obviously preceded by an offensive act; criminalize and ruthless prosecute the offensive acts, and you can prevent the real harms from taking place.

Fourth:  The conservative movement is pretty fantastic in how patient they (and their funders!) are. This was churning out there for a few decades before it was turned into the “Taking Back Our Streets Act” part of the 1994 manifesto for the conservative takeover of the House, the Contract with America, which planted the flag on what had happened in the 1980s and set the tone for how crime would be fought from that point on:

The bill embodies the Republican approach to fighting crime: making punishments severe enough to deter criminals from committing crimes, making sure that the criminal justice system is fair and impartial for all, and making sure that local law enforcement officials (who are on the streets every day), and not Washington bureaucrats direct the distribution of federal law enforcement funds….

Opponents of strict sentencing laws like these argue that “locking people up” does not address the problem of why crimes are committed in the first place. Evidence suggests, however, that there is a strong correlation between increased incarceration and decreased crime rates: from 1990-1991, states with the greatest increases in criminal incarceration rates experienced, on average, a 12.7 percent decrease in crime, while the 10 states with the weakest incarceration rates experienced an average 6.9 percent increase in crime.

Death Penalty Provisions (Title I)…Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Drug Crimes (Title II)…Mandatory Victim Restitution (Title III)…Reform of the Exclusionary Rule (Title VI)….Prisoner Lawsuits (Title VII)..Deportation of Criminal Aliens (Title VIII)…

This is a wishlist of what the conservative movement wanted when it took control of Congress in 1994, and it provides that landscape that everyone is dealing with now. Large prison populations. Mandatory minimums. Huge restitution burdens on the newly released. A drug war that pushes the Bill of Rights every chance it gets (the pushing for movement on the Exclusionary Rule).

I see Carney’s point that not everyone agreed or agrees. (You can see the Cato’s Policy Handbook for 1995 on Crime for a dissent towards the federalization, overcrowding, and doubling-down on the war on drugs that this course entailed.)  But this is the center of the movement, and this is where the movement got results.

And it all goes back to the issue of police needing to use force, even at the costs of so-called “Rights”, to maintain social order combined with the idea that there are just a few bad people out there who are harming the decent folks.  When those bad people are removed, a full community can flourish.   Offensive acts form the basis of harmful acts.  It’s a very conservative view of both why there is crime and how to fix it, and simply throwing a few technocratic fixes here and there to preserve state budgets won’t necessarily displace it or the infrastructure, ideologies and people that put it into place.

I add some additional thoughts here.

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18 Responses to The Conservative World View and Prison Populations, Broken Windows.

  1. Andrew says:

    “The Tea Party is going to get behind putting young, African-American men back on the streets and back into their communities? Are we watching the same group of organized, older, affluent-but-vulnerable white men?”

    Yes, and making sure they all have jobs. And, er, a pony too!

    Mike, there’s a thread that links this question with your other work on Foreclosure Fraud. That’s the conservative conviction that the universe bends towards moral fairness; in the end, people get what they deserve.

    You’ve been foreclosed on? That’s because you didn’t make the payments. You’re a deadbeat. Stop blaming others (like relying on some hyper-technical legal weaselling about which endorsement was made on some piece of paperwork, or what someone in the call center might have said six months ago). You lost your home, it’s because you deserved it.

    Gee, you went to prison, and you didn’t like how you were treated? Too bad, so sad. You did the crime, do the time. You’re lucky that decent people (like us) give you food and shelter.

    And so on, and so forth.

    I think a lot of this is covered in the “Just World” hypothesis – for many people, the idea that outcomes are random, and that undeserving people can end up at the top of the pile, while decent folks can get the short end of the stick, is psychologically intolerable. It’s related to cognitive dissonance – we get inculcated at a very young age to try to treat others fairly, and to expect the same from others – it becomes easy to ask this of the universe (or God, or fate).

    This mode of thinking also relies on a very strong distinction – permitting the erection of barriers, tangible and intangible – between Them and Us. We are God Fearing, decent, hard working, patriotic. They are shiftless, illegal, immoral and untrustworthy, and They deserve what’s coming to them.

    In addition to believing that “there are just a few bad people out there who are harming the decent folks. When those bad people are removed, a full community can flourish,” there’s an implicit view that We can identify, without error, who those few bad people are. Turns out – wouldn’t you know it – that it’s the bad actors who We’ve had to send to prison, or evict. Because clearly, They deserved it.

  2. Passing By says:

    As it happens, I live in California.

    A clear majority of the people in California’s prisons are there for serious crimes against persons: homicide, robbery, assault and battery, rape, child molestation, etc. And the rest are mostly there for other pretty-reprehensible behavior: burglary, theft, illegal weapons, etc. Only 17% of them are there for drug offenses.

    Other than (possibly) the drug prisoners, do you really believe that Californians would somehow be better off with these people out on the streets?

    Click to access CALPRISd2009.pdf

    • Steve Clay says:

      The key is that prison release shouldn’t necessarily mean “on the streets” with no conditions/monitoring. I bet you could find a lot of prisoners over 50 who could behave quite well under electronically supervised parole. The point is that bad CJS policy puts too many people behind bars without reducing crime adequately. Yes, the worst of the worst must be incapacitated, but there are lots of folks who can be persuaded with swift and certain punishments to cut it out (see Mark Kleiman’s latest book).

      Regardless of if you think CA’s prison population is justified, it’s clearly not sustainable. Realizing it a lot sooner would’ve helped CA.

  3. Pingback: Yes, There Are Prisons -

  4. thor says:


    Only 17%? And what about the 3 stikes law, all the petty thieves which are there for a few mistakes?

    Doesn´t the fact that totalitarian China is able to disrupt crime with a much lower incarceration rate make you think that this is a terrible policy, even in financial terms?

  5. Pingback: A Little More on Prisons, Incapacitation and Conservative Thought. « Rortybomb

  6. Rick says:

    Well, the problem is that prisons serve as crime schools. So for people who are busted early in life for minor drug offenses, they become indoctrinated into the crime culture and, when released, return later for more serious crimes.
    Somehow societies that don’t incarcerate minor offenders alongside serious criminals at high rates don’t end up having the same percentage of serious criminals!
    Is incarceration preventing crime or causing it?

  7. Robert Palmer says:


    Please provide links to sources for your percentages.

    Thank you,

  8. R says:

    I expected more of an exploration of the link between right wing economic policies, crime and imprisonment. Each of which that leads to the other. Right wing economic policies foster a society of winners and losers, where it’s OK to cut the other person’s throat, to get ahead by hook and by crook, that leveraging your way to more power and money is OK and “life is not fair”. It essentially condemns whole numbers of people to be “losers” and society gleefully mocks them as they are abused. The very rich take what they can and the rest of society follows this ethos. Right wing economic policies include the concept of NAIRU, an unemployment rate target – when unemployment falls below that rate, they cry “The economy is overheating” and so the government works to create unemployment in order to meet the target. It’s easier thus, with the profit-generating Reserve Army of Labour, to enforce workplace discipline, to abuse workers, and to disqualify workers on spurious grounds. People who are unemployed are not considered, and people who ever went to prison can forget about being reintegrated into society. Such people are ruined for life. It’s OK under this model for those who worked lifetimes to be ruined overnight, losing their home, car, family in a manner not unlike those country western songs – it’s OK to lose everything when your health fails, but it’s not OK for there to be an estate tax because that means people can’t leave their children legacies, they say, even though when someone is taken to the cleaners over a health crisis they have nothing left to leave to their children.

    Under this system, it’s each man and woman for him and herself, anything goes. Some of those designated losers take this up and some decide to make the best of it by taking up lives of crime. They are effectively implementing the ethos of the masters but theirs is outlawed.

    A society where everything is about competition, it’s cut the other person’s throat, it’s total ruin can come at any moment, where there is no social solidarity, where there’s fear and terror out there… that’s a society that is dysfunctional and crime is an inevitable result of this. Conservatives know that their economic ideas cause crime, and as they claim their economic system is total morality, that one cannot compromise on thier crime-causing policies, so the answer must be to viciously crack down on those caught. People’s lives can be ruined for losing their health, everything can be lost, why not have such stakes for people who commit crimes. Life without possibility of parole, torture cells, institutionalised prison rape, this shows that the mercilessness never ends. Those who get out are forced into NAIRU’s Reserve Army of Labour and are encouraged to return to a life of crime because they’re told that once Criminal Scum, always Criminal Scum. What they really want is for these people to drop dead. The system is designed to destroy the “unworthy” and wealthy people who are caught up in it, unless they offend important people, are always spared any real unpleasantness.

    By the way, what CATO calls economic freedom is extreme oppression for the vast majority of people. Slavery would be considered to be the ultimate in economic freedom – the right to buy and sell human beings and use them for profit.

  9. Andrew says:

    ahhh yes, the shallowness of conservative thinking. so yes, if you lock up every person who spits or litters on the street, then yes crime will indeed be minimal. but then there are the problems of the cost of incarceration and also the arbitrary nature of many legal ‘crimes’ (for example, smoking marijuana is illegal but smoking tobacco is not, etc.). the conservative narrative dismisses the “liberal” concern about ultimate causes.

    the conservative says “let us deal with the problem” when they are only dealing with symptoms and not causes. it would be as if every doctor decided to treat the cold by prescribing cough and sinus medicine only and not recommending flu shots or more frequent hand-washing.

  10. Passing By says:

    Sorry for the slow replies … I’ve been busy today with holiday stuff.

    thor–“what about the 3 stikes law, all the petty thieves which are there for a few mistakes?”

    Three strikes prisoners account for just 5% of the California prison population. They were all convicted of three separate felonies, including two classified as “serious”.

    Robert Palmer–“Please provide links to sources for your percentages”

    The link was included at the end of my previous comment. Here it is again:

    Click to access CALPRISd2009.pdf

  11. Anatoly B. says:

    I think it is thermodynamics in economy. More difference of temperatures(inequality) more resources are needed to keep it. Details might be different – more prisons, more surveillance etc.

  12. OGT says:

    Really interesting post. It bring to mind a tangentially related post by Statsguy guest posting at Baseline Scenario on the Economic Freedom index. In it Statsguy showed that the statistical link between the index and economic success was overwhelmingly due to factors such as a lack of corruption that could be characterized as ‘Good’ government, but that small government items like taxation had very little relationship to economic success.

    One wonders if the factors making up the index can be devolved in a similar manner, my suspicion is that it would break the other way.

  13. Brian says:

    Timely post, considering Mitch Daniel’s (R) recent efforts to reform prisons in Indian. His goals:

    • Improving proportionality in sentencing and ensure prison space for the worst offenders by creating a more precise set of drug and theft sentencing laws that would give judges more sentencing options.

    • Strengthening community supervision by focusing resources on high-risk offenders.

    • Reducing recidivism by increasing access to community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment.

    The reform package will also include a recommendation that the state provide $27 million over the next six years to improve probation, parole and treatment programs on the county level.

    And to those who think he is a one off republican and does not represent mainstream GOP or Tea Party ideas, he is likely to be a top contender for the 2012 or 2016 GOP nomination.

  14. guest says:

    Didn’t somebody pretty much debunk all that broken windows crap and point out a very strong correlation between the crime rates and exposure to lead, and that the peak crime wave was roughly 10 or 15 years after leaded gasoline stopped being sold. And the drop in crime coincides with the first generations not exposed to lead as fetuses/babies/children.

  15. andrewclunn says:

    I don’t know where the author studied statistical analysis, but if that’s a “strong correlation” then I’m the king of England.

  16. ohwilleke says:

    The main factor that has caused states to move back from very intensive use of incarceration has been state budget pressures, rather than any concern for social justice or effectiveness in crime fighting. The same motives could come into play at the federal level.

    It is also worth recalling that federal prisons, over which Congressional Tea Partiers have a say, have a very different mix of prisoners than state prisons.

    A very large share of all people incarcerated for plain vanilla violent crimes are Native Americans who committed those crimes on Indian Reservations, a place where the Tea Party may be less concerned about law and order. Federal prison is also disproportionately filled with white collar criminals (e.g. tax evaders like the ones after whom their party is named), with whom Tea Party members may have some sympathy. After all, nobody thinks that Bernie Madoff is going to mug somebody and embarass them if he is released early. The Tea Party may have less sympathy for federal drug offenders (although the support for reducing the crack-powder distinction in sentencing was bipartisan), but may also have considerable sympathy for those incarcerated for long terms under federal gun control laws given their strong support for the Second Amendment.

    The Tea Party probably isn’t very sympathetic to the large share of federal prisoners who are incarcerated for immigration offenses, but it isn’t beyond imagining that a cry of “deport them instead of spending money incarcerating them and then deporting them” might win some converts as a “common sense solution” when the Tea Party begins to realize that prisons are one of the easiest places to cut federal employment and discretionary spending as promised, because it is one of the relatively few services (the sancrosanct military, park rangers, and postal workers much up much of the rest) that the federal government provides directly, rather than by handing people checks.

    One can be in favor of a “tough on crime” approach to ordinary blue collar state crimes, while “seeing the light” for leniency for many of the crimes in the very different federal mix.

  17. Pingback: Prison Populations, Crime and “Present Orientedness” « Rortybomb

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