Skip to content

It Costs Too Much

What has conservative-led prison reform actually accomplished?

Tim Dunn saw a problem. In fact, he saw several problems: as the CEO of CrownQuest, an oil and gas company in Midland, Texas, he worried about government interfering too much with business. As a devout evangelical Christian, he believed that state policies were straying too far from biblical precepts. In the early 2000s, Dunn joined a well-funded push to move on both fronts—by electing more conservative Republicans to public office. In 2002, the GOP took full control of state government, winning a majority in the Texas House for the first time in 130 years. They had Republican Rick Perry in the governor’s mansion, and they’d already taken control of the Texas Senate in 1998. With Dunn’s neighbor and occasional Midland business partner Tom Craddick elected as Speaker of the House in January of 2003, state government was poised to take a hard right turn.

And it did. Ever stingy with social spending, the Texas legislature made severe budget cuts in its 2003 session and passed a major tort reform bill. But in the coming years, another storyline—a more surprising one—would emerge out of Texas, as national media outlets and a network of liberal and conservative organizations took notice of changes the state was making in criminal justice. A prime mover of those changes was Dunn, whose peculiar mix of religious and libertarian sentiments led Texas’s top leaders to question the benefits of the state’s explosive growth in prisons through the 1990s. He tapped into two strains on the right: one emerged from the evangelical radio program hosted by Chuck Colson, President Nixon’s briefly imprisoned Watergate “hatchet man,” who organized faith-based prison outreach upon his release. Too often, Dunn came to believe, harsh penalties seemed focused on “crushing the life of the perpetrator” rather than mending the harm done to the victim. “Our criminal justice system is more suitable to a tyranny,” Dunn once declared. That suggested his other motivation for reform: distrust of government power and disapproval of the vast costs borne by taxpayers in locking up more and more people.

In 1998, Dunn had joined the board of the blandly named Texas Public Policy Foundation. With interests in school choice, border security, and advancing “the institution of the nuclear family,” the TPPF was “struggling to carve out a definitive niche in the Texas policy arena,” according to a PhD dissertation by Derek Cohen, who is now the group’s vice president of policy. In 2003, the TPPF had a paltry “$9,000 in the bank” and was unable to make payroll for its staff of just three people. “Diversifying the policy portfolio” and attracting “donors to whom its work appealed” could rescue them from irrelevance. Their saving grace came in the form of Dunn, who suggested that the TPPF add criminal justice reform to its portfolio.

The TPPF launched its Center for Effective Justice in 2005, bankrolled by Dunn, to promote a conservative vision for prison reform. The center hired Marc Levin, a recent University of Texas law school graduate who had just completed a Charles Koch Fellowship writing about juvenile justice reform. He was assigned to transmute Dunn’s limited-government philosophy into a concrete program. Meanwhile, Speaker Craddick, who lived near Dunn in Midland, was already open to the argument that the state should find a way to cut prison spending. He tapped Jerry Madden, a Republican from Plano and an engineer with no relevant experience in legal issues, to chair the House Committee on Corrections. Craddick gave him a simple directive: “Don’t build new prisons. They cost too much.” Madden soon looked to policy reform groups like the TPPF for help.

In 2007, along with State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat and once avid proponent of more punitive measures, and the liberal-leaning Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Madden and Levin designed an omnibus criminal justice reform package that sought to tamp the flow of prisoners into the system by devoting around $241 million into drug treatment and mental health and rehabilitation programs. It received unanimous support in the senate, and Governor Rick Perry signed it into law that spring. Just five years earlier, Perry had benefited from the usual demagogic appeals of right-wing groups, who accused his Democratic opponent of plans to “cut the prison budget in half and release thousands of violent predators back on Texas streets.” Now, in his 2007 State of the State address, he experimented with the new conservative rhetoric. “There are thousands of offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore,” he intoned. “Let’s focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

As always when there are rare moments of liberal and conservative cooperation, the new efforts were met with glowing write-ups in the press. In 2008 alone, the TPPF counted at least forty-five news reports featuring the Center for Effective Justice. In 2010, Levin helped found a new offshoot project within the TPPF and contracted a communications firm to help publicize their new approach, which Levin cleverly named Right on Crime. In the years to come, national publications lined up to speak with Levin, from the New York Times to Mother Jones to The New Yorker. And national liberal organizations quickly saw that the Texas approach “had the makings of a PR coup,” in the words of political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles, who studied the work of Colson, Dunn, Madden, Levin, and other conservative advocates.

How some influential conservatives changed their thinking and built bridges with progressive nonprofits is the subject of Dagan’s and Teles’s 2016 book Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration. The authors were among many who saw promise in the emergence of a “new conservative critique of criminal justice,” one that looked at the growth of police forces and prisons with skepticism. Now, after a full two decades of bipartisan attempts to create a less punitive and less expensive justice system, one might ask how far beyond a PR coup the Right on Crime approach has really gone.

Cheap on Crime

One of the motivating beliefs of conservatives in Texas was that only conservatives could be trusted to turn things in a better direction. “The criminal justice arena is starved for conservative solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders, and lowering costs,” Levin wrote in the Right on Crime statement of principles, signatories of which include a bevy of well-known conservative figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jeb Bush. Their initiatives included combating “overcriminalization” and creating “evidence-based” reentry programs for people released on probation and parole. As Texas experimented with such approaches, Right on Crime caught the interest of policymakers in other states. Levin explained what he would tell the conservative crowd to win them over: “Even if you don’t sympathize with the offenders, don’t do it for them—do it for you.”

One woman recently explained how people behind bars wet their T-shirts in toilet water and lay in them to keep from overheating.

Legal scholar Hadar Aviram named this kind of policy framework “humonetarianism,” a “non-punitive, yet non-humanitarian” effort, which approaches data variables of criminal propensity, risk, deterrence, and rehabilitation “through a prism of cost.” These are efficiency measures, management strategies—calculated trims to the fat. Aviram introduced the term in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis as twenty-six states reduced funding for corrections. In fact, funding for prisons has fluctuated with the econoy for decades. Between 1971 and 1991, prime years for carceral buildup, prison construction and population expanded and contracted; in 2003, reeling from the dot-com bust, Texas even sliced $300 million from its Department of Criminal Justice, eliminating around a thousand full-time jobs in the state’s prison system.

In her 2015 book Cheap on Crime, Aviram credited conservatives for at least helping to break the long-standing impasse between “tough on crime” public safety advocates on the right and human rights activists on the liberal side. Other critics, such as political scientist Marie Gottschalk, have been less sanguine about the potential for significant reform. Although Texas’s 2007 reforms may have prevented a surge in new prison-building, “they did not spark a major contraction of the penal system or in state spending on corrections,” wrote Gottschalk, nor, she continued, did they propel a large drop in crime rates, which had been falling in Texas and much of the United States for years. “The dirty little secret is we built about four thousand beds, but we made them short-term substance-abuse facilities and after-care in communities,” Madden once said, referring to his 2007 reforms. He was low-balling it; Cohen places the number of new beds at around ten thousand, around a 6 percent increase—enough to avoid overpopulation for a couple years, but just barely. “Those are lockup facilities,” added Whitmire. “They’ve got razor wire.”

In 2021, Texas had over seven hundred thousand people trapped in a “shell game” of prisons, jails, or some form of community supervision facility, with prison population decreases since 2007 that amount to little more than a rounding error, according to Gottschalk. In the years after Right on Crime got to work, many in the state’s prison population were merely dispersed into county jails or held in supervision facilities. The picture is more complicated—and grim—than the narrative Right on Crime has sold. But an emphasis on bipartisan solutions has drawn support from both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and it has been irresistible to a powerful array of wealthy funders and nonprofit advocacy groups.

Across the Aisle

By 2015, the Right on Crime approach had reached the national stage. The Texas-based Arnold Foundation helped organize a Coalition for Public Safety, which drew initial funding of $5 million, including support from Koch Industries, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.The coalition included Right on Crime, Americans for Tax Reform, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, and the Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks. From the liberal side, they were joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Center for American Progress, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. Six months after Michael Brown was murdered by police, sparking an uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, the coalition planned to “improve the system, but also to send the message to politicians that we always ask you to work together, and we are going to lead the way.”

In 2012, the Texas Observer published a list of the 2010 donors to the TPPF that the organization had mistakenly posted on GuideStar, which compiles data on nonprofits. Tim Dunn was on the list, of course, as was a donation made by Koch Industries. The GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the country, also backed TPPF—perhaps a savvy move, given the changes set in motion by the 2008 financial crash. Private prison companies were beginning to enter a number of new sectors, including for-profit community supervision and ICE detention centers.

The technocrats at Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council of State Governments had also joined the party. Between 2011 and 2015, Pew gave the TPPF nearly $5 million for “policy work,” largely on criminal justice reform. The liberal Public Welfare Foundation gave around $1.3 million to the TPPF to generate support for criminal justice reform among conservatives. “To make it a credible project this could not be simply a George Soros joint,” said Eric Cadora, who helped launch the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which had been “shorn of its ‘social justice’ roots and rewired into a ‘performance’ framework,” according to political scientists Dagan and Teles. These nonprofits funneled money into other state campaigns inspired by the Texas model, backing legislation drafted by Right on Crime. Levin would go on to collaborate closely with the Vera Institute and the conservative Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

By 2018, the criminal justice reform movement celebrated a bipartisan victory in Congress with the passage of the First Step Act, which reduced some mandatory minimum sentences and expanded job training and other programs to reduce recidivism among federal prisoners. When President Trump signed the law, standing among lawmakers and staff was John Koufos, then director of reentry initiatives for the TPPF’s Right on Crime, one of several instrumental conservative groups behind the bill’s success. As the New York Times saw it at the time, “There is a new bipartisan consensus on criminal justice, and it is that the old consensus was wrong.”

Sweltering Cells

The idea that a durable new consensus had formed on the right was always overstated. In an analysis written in 2020, Aviram asked, “Are we still cheap on crime?” It was clear by that time that the Right on Crime approach had not become the dominant strain in the Trump-led GOP. In Texas, as in Washington, D.C., factions within the GOP have warred against each other, making any attempts at moderation an electoral risk. Dunn himself has been a consistent advocate for primary challenges to Republican moderates, seeing them as too willing to compromise with Democrats. His erstwhile ally Jerry Madden drew Republican criticism and ended up deciding not to run for reelection in 2012.

Meanwhile, the idea of ending mass incarceration is not part of the Right on Crime agenda.

Criminal justice reform varies widely from state to state, yet some clear trends have emerged in mass incarceration. In 1992, two law professors identified patterns of a “new penology” emerging, in which administrators take an almost actuarial approach to managing large prison populations, focusing on keeping risks down and shifting from individualized attention to mass warehousing. Aviram drew on their ideas in 2010 to define humonetarianism, adding that “the increase in incarceration rates, caused by punitive sentencing . . . yields more subjects under supervision, which in its turn generates more internal metrics for risk assessment.” This has led to an increase in reliance on electronic monitoring and surveillance outside of prison facilities. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of people in the criminal justice system subjected to electronic monitoring grew by nearly 140 percent. The wide variance in carceral techniques is partly because each locality has been exploring their own management and control strategies.

To this day, Texas prisons are often described as hell on earth. Two-thirds of them don’t have air conditioning; just this summer, at least forty-one incarcerated people, likely more, died amid record-breaking triple-digit heat. Testifying on behalf of her incarcerated husband, one woman recently explained how people behind bars wet their T-shirts in toilet water and lay in them to keep from overheating, a violation for which guards can issue a citation. Incarcerated labor, including cotton picking, earns the state around $70 million each year. Parolees in Texas must pay their own supervision fees, which rake in around $160 million for the state per year, and they often live under a regime of curfews, drug tests, travel and living arrangement prohibitions, and strict “punctuality” requirements for court appearances. Houston’s city council voted in 2018 to prohibit reentry housing for parolees from being located within a thousand feet of a school, park, or day care facility, effectively forcing low-income offenders to the city’s periphery and making it harder for them to find jobs. Still, nearly half of all state prison admissions each year are revocations of parole or probation, mostly for “technical violations”—not new offenses.

Texas’s 2007 reform bill authorized electronic monitoring and implemented a series of sanctions for probation violations. The carceral state now “operates in opaque, entangling ways, ensnaring an ever-larger share of the population through civil injunctions, legal financial obligations, and violations of administrative law,” wrote prison scholars Katherine Beckett and Naomi Murakawa. “Over time, these seemingly small incursions compound the heightened surveillance that comes with institutional enmeshment, longer (if not technically ‘criminal’) rap sheets, and inescapable debt.” Closing prisons has proven hard enough, but how do we do away with the logic that invites increased control in every person’s life? How do we tear away the meshwork when it becomes harder to see?

This stark reality coexists with—and often mirrors—arguments that Right on Crime uses to justify budget cuts for efficiency’s sake. The group hasn’t focused on inhumane conditions within the prison system. To take one example, prison administrators now insist on digitized prison mail, downsizing by way of eliminating one of the only sources of tactile contact—drawings from children, handwritten notes from loved ones—that prisoners have with their families. Likewise, 2007 reformer Whitmire has for years answered calls to finance the construction of air conditioning in prisons with a simple logic: “Don’t commit a crime, and you can stay home and be cool.” Nowhere on Right on Crime’s website do they advance the idea that life-saving air conditioning might help, per their Statement of Principles, in “reforming offenders,” though a 2018 Right on Crime employee handbook outlines several certificates prisoners might acquire to work on HVAC units upon release.

Ultimately, the continued harsh conditions inside Texas prisons, combined with the expanded system of surveillance and supervision, raise the question of whether reform efforts have addressed Dunn’s stated view that “our criminal justice system is more suitable to a tyranny.” As the libertarian right advocated for small-government conservatism, they opened the door to expand state power in pervasive new ways.

Nowhere is this interplay more evident than in Right on Crime’s collaboration with Arnold Ventures, née the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, which changed its name when it shifted from nonprofit to LLC to increase its political giving. In recent years, Arnold Ventures has donated nearly $1.5 million to TPPF for its pro-privatization and community supervision advocacy work. (Despite its progressive reputation, the Arnold family has long funded privatization schemes, targeting everything from pensions to public education.) Arnold Ventures has come under increased scrutiny since it funded a surveillance project to monitor central Baltimore by drone a year after the riots following Freddie Gray’s murder (due to the backlash, they withdrew support), and because of its funding for Public Safety Assessment (PSA), software used in bail hearings. Like Dunn, John Arnold, another billionaire—and a former Enron executive—has been lauded for his supposedly heterodox opinions on public policy.

Like many “evidence-based” humonetarian solutions the Arnold family supports, methods such as the PSA software provide leeway to punish the poor by way of quantitative data. It’s been offered to jurisdictions for free since 2018. John Koufos, who previously worked with Right on Crime, now works as the director of advocacy at Arnold Ventures. Of the many jurisdictions using PSA software today, Right on Crime has played an active role promoting risk assessment tools in Arizona, Kentucky, Utah, and parts of Texas.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

When the Right on Crime movement began to spread from Texas to other states, it opened up attention to prison reform on what might be considered more welcoming ground. But states like New York and California, with Democrats in control, still had to overcome years of complacency about mass warehousing and ill treatment of prisoners.

In 2015, when Kalief Browder died by suicide after police locked him up on Rikers Island for three years based on a crime he didn’t commit, a critical mass of New Yorkers stood up. Rikers, “the Abu Ghraib of New York City,” is the last penal colony in the United States. By the time of Browder’s death, it had become the target of an increasingly organized network of abolitionists, wrote criminologists Zhandarka Kurti and Jarrod Shanahan. Their grassroots work “in turn created a base for the Ford Foundation-funded #CloseRikers campaign.” A slew of nonprofits including the Vera Institute of Justice and Arnold Ventures “participated in different stages of the design, public relations, and political lobbying for the construction of skyscraper jails across New York City,” they wrote. With slightly fewer jail cells in the skyscraper plan, the city is simultaneously investing in “Supervised Release” and “Alternatives to Incarceration” programs, which use risk assessment tools like those funded by Arnold Ventures.

As part of this effort, Right on Crime founder Marc Levin produced, wrote, and codirected Rikers (2016), a documentary used to justify the #CloseRikers campaign, along with Bill Moyers, the film’s host. The Ford Foundation awarded Rikers $40,000 for public screenings. The documentary received good press from Democracy Now, WNYC, and The Nation. Combined with all the other lobbying and PR efforts, the #CloseRikers campaign soon gained popular support and the skyscraper jails are today under construction.

It was another victory for the humonetarian approach. Few would deny the usefulness of closing a monstrous facility like Rikers. Yet replacing one jail with another has never adequately solved the human rights abuses that occur daily within the carceral state. Theorists have argued that prisons and prison reform were invented at the same time. They are inseparable, feeding off each other year after year, and finding new inroads over time.

As Right on Crime succeeded in marketing itself as a voice of reason, conservatives have led the way to “an increasingly shallow public conversation, emptied of dignity, equality, and concern for human rights,” as Aviram put it. Some liberal partners in the Right on Crime approach have expressed discomfort with the product of these collaborative efforts, yet they often reason that a first step is better than no step at all. Meanwhile, the idea of ending mass incarceration is not part of the Right on Crime agenda. More than two million people are currently locked up in the hellholes that are American prisons. It will take a very different movement to end, once and for all, that world-historic disgrace.