Just behind and to the right of the front desk at the Richmond City Justice Center is a small, brightly lit room with children’s books, a child-sized table and chairs, and, if memory serves, simple board games. It’s a marked improvement over the old jail but a sad reminder, all the same, of the damage to families when dad — or sometimes mom — gets locked up.
Conservatives in this country have long prided themselves on their commitment to “law and order,” a phrase that entered our political discourse as far back as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. But it was Republicans Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon who in recent decades reintroduced this short-hand for being serious about enforcing criminal statutes. Donald Trump likes to associate himself with the idea of being “tough on crime,” except of course when committed by his own cronies. Conservatives — this goes back to Ronald Reagan — have also campaigned as champions of “family values,” a term by now so debased that even the Corleones and Sopranos can consider themselves exemplars of these homely virtues. (We’ll leave the Trumps out, for now.)
So it’s encouraging that conservatives, for very good reasons, have come to question the wisdom of a range of practices embedded in our criminal justice system. It’s even more encouraging that seemingly unlikely politicians — Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for example — seem sincere in their desire to do something about its indefensible inequities and even its inefficiencies.
The inefficiencies seem indisputable, even in cold economic terms. Thanks to the sheer cost of incarcerating prisoners — more than $30,000 per inmate per year — the federal prison system in 2015 ran a deficit of nearly $7 billion. The states that same year forked over $43 billion. Getting a handle on these costs, despite what some might claim, is not a matter of disabling air conditioners or other supposed luxuries. Anyone who has ever visited a prison, much less lived in one, knows they aren’t country clubs. Texas, which has never been thought of as lenient on scofflaws, has stepped up its drug diversion programs, among other efforts, saving the Lone Star State about $2 billion per year.
The numbers are useful. But they are only crude attempts to quantify that which cannot be quantified, which is deep human suffering, both individual and societal. The dry statistic that more than 60,000 Americans are held in what Virginia inmates call “isolation,” or solitary confinement, for up to 22 hours a day is important to know but can only hint at the psychological damage such punishment inflicts. This is especially the case considering the mental problems a great percentage of inmates already face. That almost 3 million children are growing up in families where one parent is incarcerated is revealing, too, but only suggestive.
There are any number of reasonable reforms that can lessen what has been called “second hand suffering.” Books could be written on the subject, the theme of which is suggested by an article in The American Conservative, whose thoughtful commentary on cultural affairs continues to distinguish it among ostensibly right-of-center journals. “If the family is the building block of society,” Emily Mooney and SteVon Felton write, “then policy should demonstrate its importance. Criminal justice reform ultimately must be a pro-family movement which recognizes that healthy families can be both the guard against future crime and the impetus for change while weak families are the beginning of society’s undoing.” This is wise counsel, ignored at our own peril.