Pat Nolan is a leading voice in the national criminal justice reform movement. The former Republican member of the California State Assembly served 29 months in federal custody for racketeering during the 1990s, and after his release he got involved in efforts to make sentencing and corrections policies more effective. He directs the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation and is an active member of Right on Crime, an alliance of conservatives that advocates for changes to the criminal justice system.
How would you describe your position on prison and criminal justice today?
First, I think we need prisons. There are people who are such a danger to society that we do need to remove them from the community. But I also believe in human dignity and in redemption. I believe those in prison should not be debased or humiliated, and every effort should be made to help them turn their lives around. And that’s not the reality today in many prisons. Instead, the skills someone develops to survive inside prison tend to make them better criminals and more dangerous when they get out.
Secondly, we’ve gotten to the point where prison has become the default punishment for too many lower-level crimes. So we incarcerate people who frankly aren’t a danger to society. By overusing incarceration, we’ve caused our prison population to explode, and at great cost both fiscally and in human terms. Excessive incarceration separates families and makes returning inmates virtually unemployable. As a conservative, I feel taxpayers aren’t getting as much public safety as we are paying for.
So we need to handle low-level offenders without sending them to prison. They need to be held accountable, but if they are not a physical threat to anyone, let them remain home with their families, stay employed, and be under supervision. And we have to provide them with drug treatment and mental health services if they need them.
How has your conversion on criminal justice influenced your career?
Chuck Colson asked me to come to Washington and run Justice Fellowship, and I’ve worked on criminal justice reform ever since. Chuck began his reform efforts in 1985, and he was the first conservative to say, “Hey, there’s a better way to do this.”
Chuck once said that only a nation that is rich and stupid would continue to spend billions on a system that leaves offenders’ behavior unchanged, victims’ needs unmet, and communities living in fear of crime.
Any final thoughts?
We’re getting pushback from many of those who benefit from the status quo. I refer to it as “The Empire Strikes Back.” Most are very sincere, but frankly they’re defending a system that is unjust, harms families, and doesn’t make us safer. What we propose holds people accountable in an effective way that offers hope to offenders, victims, and communities.