Reforming Prisoners

Brian Gongol

Conservatives -- real ones, that is -- believe in limited government. People often use "limited" interchangeably with "small", but I think there's a difference.

I would oppose a government that was small and oppressive, far more than I would oppose one that took up a lot of space out of necessity. (And in our modern world, it's impossible to say that a Federal government that spends more than 20% of GDP is "small". It just isn't.)

The essence of limited government is that it shouldn't have an unnecessary reach into the private life of its citizens. And that's what interests me in the recommendations for justice reform brought to us by Nila Bala and Arthur Rizer of the R Street Institute.

The crux of their argument is that once people have paid their dues in the criminal-justice system, we as a society ought to do our best to make sure they have a reasonable path back to integration with decent society.

It's an argument that should resound with proponents of limited government: The government's reach into a person's life shouldn't continue long after they've served their time. If we truly think that the justice system should place an emphasis on actually correcting people who have gone off the right path (and isn't that why we call it "corrections" anyway?), then we should be alert to what kinds of obstacles government may be deliberately or inadvertently placing in the path to continued rehabilitation and reform.

A great example of an inadvertent obstacle is excessive occupational licensing. It's a mouthful, but the bottom line is that people in any given occupation have an incentive to find ways to keep other people from competing with them by imposing legal requirements like licenses in order to enter a career path.

Some licenses make sense, of course: You wouldn't want to put your child on a school bus driven by an unlicensed driver. But there's an important line to be drawn between those requirements that exist to legitimately protect the public health and safety -- and those that only protect the job prospects of the people in the occupation.

This is a really sticky problem, because everyone has an incentive to fight for barriers to entry in their own line of work, and not as much to object every time someone else wants to do the same in a different trade. But the resulting mess is often a thicket of regulations that don't actually ensure that people are good at what they're licensed to do, and the difficulty to obtain any given license may have nothing whatsoever to do with what's actually necessary for the good of the customer.

This regulatory creep has a particularly pernicious effect when it keeps people from entering occupations where they might have a shot at legitimate self-employment. That turns into an especially vexing problem for people who have spent time in prison, because they're often blocked from employment elsewhere because employers both large and small tend to be reluctant to hire ex-convicts.

If employment options are hard to find because nobody wants to give a reformed convict a second chance, and if regulatory creep keeps people from trying self-employment, then we may be stumbling unwittingly into keeping ex-convicts forever in poverty. And since "no man is an island", it often affects the well-being of family members and communities as well.

The problem is big because our prison population is big: 2.2 million Americans, of whom almost all will return to the broader population. That's a prison population larger than the entire population of Nebraska (1.9 million) and almost as large as Iowa (3.1 million). And it doesn't even count an additional 4.6 million people on probation or parole.

Real conservatives with an appetite for limited government should take a careful look at the power of some of these proposed reforms to reduce regulatory creep and to reduce the cost of reforming people who have made mistakes and giving them a legitimate second chance at life.

Criminal convictions, more often than not, reflect mistakes and bad choices made by flawed human beings. A sliver of our population is truly sociopathic and dangerous and needs to be locked up far away from us all. But the majority of prisoners ought to be viewed as human beings whose flaws caught up with them.

Since none of us are perfect, real justice depends on the rest of us recognizing their humanity, helping the willing to reform and overcome those flaws, and doing what we can to make sure that a one-time mistake or bad choice doesn't turn into a life sentence of punishment.

Truly limited government ought to make room for people to work for the freedom to grow into better people. This isn't a matter of being soft on crime, but rather one of being smart with the human resources we have as a country. We can't afford to throw away the abilities, talents, and potential good inside a population the size of a small state.