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In Conversation: Vikrant Reddy Thinks Conservatives Can Fix The Justice System

The Koch Institute scholar on conservatism, criminal justice reform, and what to do about America’s prisons

America is divided. There has never really been a point at which it wasn’t, but our nation today is increasingly, acceleratingly polarized. These divisions manifest not just physically, in where we live, work, and play, but also mentally, in terms of what we think about — and how. Our major political parties have been further divided by our neither liberal nor conservative new president, his byzantine administration, and a governing style guided more by whims than principles. In this series, I'm going to talk to as many people as I can about how this administration — and this wild time — is shaping their thinking.

Vikrant Reddy is a senior research fellow for criminal justice reform at the Charles Koch Institute, and one of the leading conservative voices on the subject of criminal justice issues, from the War on Drugs to mandatory minimum sentencing. His work has appeared in Vice, the National Review, The Federalist, and Fox News.

[ This interview has been edited and condensed.]

Over the past three to four years, we’ve seen conservative lawmakers [and] Republicans finally view the current criminal justice system as problematic. Why do you think such unexpected sources have changed their positions on criminal justice reform?

Vikrant Reddy: I think it's because we finally have some evidence. I think for a long time, people were speaking about theoretical models. People are quite reticent to experiment with these models, because you're experimenting with public safety. It's obviously a very serious issue, [and it's] going to be hard to convince the country all at once to do something like [criminal justice reform]. But you could convince a few states to do it, and if those few states have good results, then you [would have] other states that will take it on. Very quickly, a domino effect will begin.

It's notable that Texas started really kind of engaging with prison reform in 2007. It did it in large part because they were concerned about the fiscal impact of the criminal justice system. The legislators at the time were told that they [had] to build another 12,000 prison beds by the year 2012, which [was] going to cost $2 billion. So the legislators said, “Let's find some way to do this without using the state surplus, or going to taxpayers and asking for [money].” And they were told that you could put more money into things like drug courts, stronger probations, and parole, and in the long run, you probably wouldn't need the prison beds.

And again, early on, it's just theory. But it worked in Texas. Since that time, they have managed to shut down four prisons. There's talk right now in the legislation session about shutting down another three. I can't promise that will happen. But they have shut down four so far, so they didn't have to open up the new 12,000 prison beds, didn't have to spend the $2 billion. They have the lowest crime rate they've had since, like, the late ’60s. They've showed tremendous success. More states have done it — Georgia, South Dakota, all these kinds of places. And you've seen enormous momentum, because it's not a theory, it is a tangible result.

So to flip that question on its head, why do you think Republicans have generally been so reticent to embrace criminal justice reform? After 30, 40 years of this “tough on crime” attitude from the GOP, why do you think it's taken so long for conservatives to come around on this issue, especially since it could be viewed as a fiscally conservative issue?

Reddy: First of all, what I think was happening there is you had a real crime epidemic. It's just a mathematical fact. Crime went up tremendously through the 1970s and 1980s. I think it's also fair to say for a very long time, progressives did not take that issue on in a serious way. And that opened up this opportunity for conservatives to kind of leap in and say, “This is our issue, the American people will trust us on it.” And it worked. I think what's really interesting is [conservatives] saw [their tactics working] in terms of the way that the other party started shifting their tactics, too. You reached a point where suddenly Democrats were saying, “Oh gosh, we're being soft on crime, we better get tough.”

So for instance, in Texas, [Republican] Governor Ann Richards built a whole lot of prisons. At the federal level, Bill Clinton passes the 1994 Crime Bill. ... So now you have this model of the way politics works in the United States, which says to be successful, you have to be tough on crime. When people are doing something, and they're seeing what they perceive to be results, it's very, very difficult to get them to change that mental model.

Now, ultimately, [conservatives] did change. So what happened? I think it depends on the kind of conservative you're talking to. There's a lot of different camps under the conservative umbrella. I think the Law & Order conservatives started to get very concerned about the [prison return] rates. It's supposed to be a correction system, but people go in, and they're even worse than they started. And I think people began to wonder just what in the world they were paying for in terms of public safety, because in some ways, these policies seem counterproductive. The fiscal conservatives were just looking at the cost.

And I think the social conservatives ... you have a cohort of people who said, “We claim to be the party of family and community,” and yet there are families and communities in this country where a third of all of these young fathers are locked up behind bars. And it's inconsistent to claim that we're family and community if we're not engaging with that issue.

What role do you think race has played in [those discussions], and in that eventual shift that you were talking about?

Reddy: I grew up in suburban Fort Worth, Texas. And I went to schools that were surrounded by football fields and tennis courts, and open fields. Other people, often young black men who grew up in much more urban settings, in places like downtown New York, or Chicago, or Baltimore, their schools were not surrounded by open fields. Like, across the street is a CVS or the laundromat, or the apartment building or whatever.

Here's where I'm going with all this. When people pass legislation that says, “within 1,000 feet of the school, if you happen to be dealing drugs, we're going to ramp up the penalties,” nobody is explicitly targeting young black men. All they are trying to do is make sure that this stuff stays away from kids. However, you [have] got to be realistic about who [these policies are] going to impact. It's not going to impact suburban Fort Worth the way that it does affect places like downtown New York, Baltimore, and Chicago. And nobody intended for these to come down in a harder way on young black men, but that's what happened.

In fact, one of the great ironies of it is that some of the people pushing the hardest on bills like this, these school-zone bills in the ’80s and early ’90s, were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The dialogue and the framing of the conversation we are having in 2017 about criminal justice is not the kind of framing and dialogue that was taking place in the late ’80s. So to get back to your original question, I do think that conservatives are really sympathetic to this notion that we have passed legislation that has had unintended consequences. And that [legislation] has come down on black communities in a harder way, and I think that we need to review that. But the notion that there was this shadowy cabal of Republicans or members of the Congressional Black Caucus who sat around trying to come up with ways to specifically attack those communities — that conservatives very much recoil against.