Note: misconceptions/challenged statements from a previous edit are struck through viz. insight from an answer.

There's been a campaign for US federal prison reform for decades. It's long had a lot of support, but not the level of bipartisan support among politicians we've recently seen. Whether you want to attribute past objections to such reforms to a genuine belief in the importance of long punitive sentences or the cynical effects of lobbying from for-profit prisons, the fact is politicians have often voiced such objections. It's understandable, given the popularity of "tough on crime" policies with voters in many elections.

But the House and Senate versions were respectively passed 360-59 and 87-12; and while the conciliatory vote might not be such a landslide, major legislation rarely attracts such near-universal support. Nor is the bill above any criticism outside of Washington. For example, penologists regard the bill's rehabilitation as less effective in crime reduction than incapacitation.

So why is the act so widely accepted among politicians in both parties, regardless of house? Perhaps prison reform always was, but it never seemed it. I've read this may have been a long time coming more due to Mitch McConnell trying to block a vote on this issue rather than Republicans finally supporting it enough to pass, but even if that's true it leaves such support unexplained.

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It's long had a lot of support, but not the level of bipartisan support among politicians we've recently seen.

That's not entirely accurate. As far as I'm aware, criminal justice reforms have been supported by big-wig figures on the right of the spectrum for a while (of the famous ones, Newt Gingrich from traditional and social conservative corner and Rand Paul and Koch brothers from right-libertarian corner).

but even if that's true it leaves such support unexplained

The supporters' reasons vary, but can mostly be boiled down (on the right wing) to:

  • Basic human decency, and other non partisan reasons. Many on the right wing share the same views on the problems with the current system as the people on the left - it's not always just, it's over the board, it's got numerous problems undermining people.

However, I'm going to assume by your wording that the main gist of your question is "why do Republicans/conservatives/right wing support it, not just Democrats". There are many reasons that are actually stemming from specifically right wing/conservative/etc... concerns:

  • Family values angle, especially for social conservatives/evangelicals.

    Current us Justice system severely erodes the "nuclear family", not by purpose, but by its effect on incarceration rate of young - and especially minority - males many of whom leave fatherless children once incarcerated, with obvious and well-studied downstream negative effects on children involved as well as overall society.

  • Fiscal conservatism.

    Incarcerating a large portion of the society costs money. Having people recidivizing and going back into the system makes that even worse. People who are in prison aren't contributing properly to the economy and therefore to tax income from the economy on the other side of the balance. Quoting from same Gingrich op-ed:

    The United States now spends $80 billion a year on a system in which half of the people complete their prison sentence and commit more crimes. Wouldn’t it be better if they got out of prison and never went back because they are leading law-abiding, productive lives?

  • General economic concerns

    People who are in prison aren't contributing properly to the economy. Their fatherless children have a big negative effect on future economic growth. And other second order effects.

  • Federalism and evidence-based lawmaking.

    As discussed elsewhere on the site, one of the big ideas in creating USA was that the states serve as laboratories/test grounds for varying policies, and ones that succeed at state level can have more support to implement at federal level. As per Newt Gingrich's Washington Post opinion column, this is exactly the case here:

    The bill was crafted from proven reforms already passed in states such as Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, where crime rates and prison populations have declined.

  • Law and order

    As noted by Gingrich on above-linked column, in practice, these reforms lead to lower crime rates, which tickles people whose main concern is lowering the crime. They tried "tough on crime" approach in the 90s, noticed it may not always work, and are ready to support something that shows it can work.

    Because incentives affect human behavior, policies for both offenders and the corrections system must align incentives with our goals of public safety, victim restitution and satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness, thereby moving from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results (Right on Crime SoP).

  • Libertarian concerns

    While it's generally not political-sciency sound to equate libertarianism (aka classical liberalism for the readers from the other side of the pond) with "right wing", in the current political environment in the US libertarians align more with Republicans/conservatives than with Democrats/progressives for a variety of reasons, and influence them.

    Libertarian views lead to justice system reform on multiple levels, from drug criminal policy to rehabilitation. Probably worth a separate question to answer in detail.


  • 2
    Thank you, especially for challenging me where you had to.
    – J.G.
    Dec 20, 2018 at 13:45
  • You could add that conservatives see the value in redemption, and that being pro-life also means allowing a life freedom when that is a viable option
    – user9790
    Oct 27, 2019 at 13:28

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