- Main Justice - http://www.mainjustice.com -
Op-Ed: Sentencing Reform is Not a Liberal or Conservative Issue
Posted By Julie Stewart On December 22, 2010 @ 12:05 pm In News | Comments Disabled
Right on crime is the smart approach
Last week, the president signed into law an extension of the Bush tax cuts. The Senate voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And the Republicans killed an omnibus spending bill in favor of a short-term spending resolution. All of these not-so-lame-duck-like happenings obscured the launch of a new initiative that could have a bigger impact on American politics and social policy than any of these developments.
On December 15, conservative leaders from around the country convened at Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and announced a new “Right on Crime” campaign. As its name suggests, the project is aimed at building support for criminal justice reform, including sentencing reform, among conservative policymakers at the federal and state levels. The campaign is being sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
As president of a nonpartisan organization that has been fighting unjust sentencing laws for 20 years, I could not be more excited about the Right on Crime group. I have never believed sentencing reform was a liberal or conservative issue, and yet for more than a generation, it has been used as a political wedge issue. Put simply, if you were a federal or state policymaker, unless you reflexively supported long, mandatory prison sentences for even nonviolent offenders, you risked being labeled “soft on crime.”
Thus began the tightening of a one-way ratchet – more activity criminalized, prison sentences increased – that has left us with, in part, a lower crime rate and, in whole, an unsustainably expensive and socially destructive corrections system. Today, one of out every 31 Americans is either in prison or jail, on probation or on parole and there are 2.3 million people in prison. That number represents 25 percent of the world’s prison population and yet the United States is home to just 5 percent of the world’s population.
If these numbers don’t seem completely disproportional, then you have to concede against all evidence, including what you know about the goodness and generosity of the American people, that we really belong to the most evil and corrupt society on the face of the earth. And you must blind yourself to the fact that our criminal justice policies are destroying families. At least 1.5 million children have a parent in prison and the majority of these children are under 18 years old.
The economic consequence of locking everyone up and throwing away the key is huge. Prison and corrections spending by the states is now the fastest-growing segment of their budgets, outpacing education and transportation.
I have long wondered why more conservatives have not been willing to apply the same cost-benefit analysis to criminal justice programs that they do to other government activities. How can conservatives in Washington attack the power and spending of the IRS, EPA, and other agencies, while exempting DOJ? And where were the believers in state authority over local matters while Congress federalized more and more crimes and imposed one-size-fits-all sentences? Were the twin wars – on crime, on drugs – truly beyond scrutiny?
Last week, we learned, happily, that the answer is “no.” Prominent conservatives signed a statement of principles organized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation with a simple overarching message: conservatives who have been tough on crime now need to get tough on criminal justice spending. It is time to try new alternatives to controlling crime that will give us more bang for the taxpayer’s buck. The endorsements for this new approach came from all rooms in the conservative mansion – economic conservatives, like Grover Norquist; law-and-order types, like former DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson; and social conservatives, including Prison Fellowship’s Pat Nolan. The participation of other prominent conservatives, such as Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, and David Keene, will give this campaign even more heft.
I am grateful for the contribution that some of these conservative leaders have played in recent battles, including in the successful fight to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. Working together as part of the Right on Crime campaign, however, will allow these leaders’ voices to be amplified in Washington and across the country.
Long-time observers of politics might recognize the dynamic at work here. It took Nixon to open China; it took Clinton to sign welfare reform; and it’s going to take conservative policymakers to help us achieve real criminal justice reform. That’s why I am thrilled about this new campaign and I look forward to working together with all of the coalition’s members in the months and years ahead to pass criminal justice reforms that keep us safe without bankrupting us.
President and Founder, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)
1612 K St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20006
Article printed from Main Justice: http://www.mainjustice.com
URL to article: http://www.mainjustice.com/2010/12/22/op-ed-sentencing-reform-is-not-a-liberal-or-conservative-issue/
Copyright © 2009-2012 WDC Media LLC. All rights reserved.