Michael Hough—a second-term Republican state legislator from Frederick County, Md.—is about as conservative as blue-state legislators come. He played a prominent role in opposing the state’s new gay marriage law, holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, and received a 100 percent score from the state’s business lobby.
The major focus of his legislative agenda, however, crushes any stereotypes that might come to mind, given his résumé. Hough wants to reform America’s prisons and help the more than 500,000 people who come home from correctional facilities every year.
In the past few years, he’s successfully pushed programs that offer well-behaved offenders the chance to significantly shorten their time under state supervision and that replace potentially long sentences with “swift and certain” stays in prison for failed drug tests and other slip ups. This year, he’s working to pass mental health reforms and to create a “certificate of rehabilitation” program that allows ex-offenders to present formal evidence that they’ve mended their ways.
“As a fiscal conservative, it just made sense to me. We spend a lot on prisons,” he says. “On a human level, I know that people sometimes just get trapped in addiction.”
Hough isn’t alone. Around the country, dozens of political leaders with rock-solid conservative credentials have begun to take a new line on crime and, particularly, the issue of reintegrating ex-offenders into society. This loose movement represents a sea change in conservative thinking and, arguably, the largest social reform effort to emerge from the right in several decades.