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Religion Matters
Conservative Evangelicals Help Drag California Toward Prison Reform

Not only does blue California have one of the harshest criminal justice systems in the country (in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that conditions in the state’s facilities constituted “cruel and unusual punishment”), but the state has also done very little to successfully reform the system. Repeated criticism and court mandates to reduce overcrowding and treat prisoners more humanely have done little to improve matters. California’s conservative Christians may be the ones to change all that.

The NYT reports on a new proposition gaining momentum that would “transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary.” In practice, that means property crimes like theft that involve items valued lower than $950 and possession of small amounts of certain drugs like heroin and cocaine will be counted as misdemeanors, carrying a sentence of one-year in jail or non-jail penalties like probation. The government expects to save hundreds of millions a year from the reduced prison load, which would be poured back into improving the system and its counseling and abuse treatment offerings.

Proposition 47, as the measure is called, will be put up for a vote on November 7. As of now, it looks likely to pass, with 62 percent of respondents to a September poll expressing support for the reform (25 percent oppose it). This support comes despite vocal and intense opposition from groups involved in law enforcement like district attorneys and the association of police chiefs. One advantage the pro-reform side has enjoyed so far is a large amount of money from the Christian right:

[T]he largest single donor is B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian businessman and philanthropist based in Malibu. In one of the most tangible signs yet of growing concern among conservatives about the cost and impact of incarceration, Mr. Hughes has donated $1.255 million.

Mr. Hughes said he had been inspired by the late Chuck Colson to start prison ministry programs in California, and that his firsthand contact with prisoners and their families convinced him that the current heavy reliance on incarceration is often counterproductive.

“This is a model that doesn’t work,” he said in an interview. “For the $62,000 cost of a year in prison, you can send three kids to college,” he said. “But for me, it’s not just about the money, it’s about our fellow citizens who are hurting.”

The media has frequently pointed to the coming “social justice” awakening of American evangelicals that will, at a minimum, complement evangelical social conservatism or, at best, eclipse it. Immigration is almost always brought up in this context. The wish is perhaps father to the thought. But here, at least, there does seem to be a genuine investment by conservative Christians in an issue outside what we typically think of as the culture war portfolio. Last year we noted that Republicans across the country were starting to take the lead on prison reform. Indeed, many red states have successfully instituted more far-reaching prison reforms than the ones being so hotly contested in blue California, as the NYT story notes. But in California, the modest reforms on the table will be at least partially dependent on conservative Christian money.

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  • Jagneel

    I thought I’d never say this: “Bravo conservative evangelicals.”
    For all the talk about freedom, this country incarcerates shamefully high number of its citizens.
    After all the decades of accusations of being soft on crime, it’s understandable that liberals not taking initiative on this issue. (Remember in 1992 Bill Clinton flying back to Arkansas to make sure a mentally handicap man on death row was actually executed.)

  • thrasymachus02

    Evangelical Christianity has always been a substantially progressive phenomenon. Criminal justice reform has been part of this. There is such a thing as too much reform, and we reached that point at the peak of progressive control over criminal justice, from the 60’s to the 80’s. Horror and chaos was the result. Eventually people got tired of this and the social consensus turned to incapacitation, conservatives because they liked it and liberals because they were tired of losing elections.

    People have short memories and you don’t have the daily stories about convenience store clerks being murdered, so they think everything is fine. The idiotic comparison of the cost of college and prison is too much though- I though even Jesse Jackson gave up on that thirty years ago.

    Actually locking criminals up is a very cost effective use of public money.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Glad to hear that conservative Christian money is doing something useful somewhere. I hope Mr. Hughes has discovered—–while visiting the prisons—-that one third of corrections officers are complete crooks, a second third are scared of the first third, and the third third seriously do not give a damn about anything. Anyone with much access tends to learn this.

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