Culture, Science & Faith

A Conservative Pitch for Criminal Justice Relief

Crime is down and incarceration is up, but is all well?

Michael Swartz · Oct. 9, 2015

We hear a lot about rampant criminality these days, but violent crime has actually declined over the last two decades. The question is what to do with our burgeoning prison population.

Despite horrific and exceedingly public scenes such as the Oregon community college shooting and others, we’re a statistically safer nation than we were at the height of the narcotic-fueled surge in crime a quarter-century ago. Lawmakers managed to get a lot of criminals off the streets through effective legislation like “three strikes” laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. But neither can we ignore the deterrent effect of a greatly increasing number of legal gun owners during the same time period.

Over the last few years, though, a growing number on both sides of the political aisle have expressed concern about the pendulum having swung too far. In a nation where one out of 28 children has a parent behind bars, there are two ways to address the issue. Barack Obama recently granted clemency to 46 men and women who were convicted and given sentences he deemed overly harsh. As with most everything Obama does, it was a largely symbolic gesture meant to further a larger political agenda — that of restoring felons’ voting rights.

On the conservative side, however, the issue is being approached from the supply side, if you will. A proposal spearheaded by Senator Mike Lee of Utah makes the case that judges should once again be given discretion to hand down alternative methods of punishment, particularly to non-violent offenders. Lee recently explained the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which “expands federal judges’ now-limited discretion, so they can treat offenders like human beings, not statistics, and punish them according to their particular circumstances.” That sounds sort of like good old-fashioned common sense.

Lee goes on to give the example of a Utah man who was given the choice between prison or entering a long-term residential treatment center. While it may seem like leniency to the man on the street who is fed the narrative about every convicted felon being a potential threat to society, this offender was neither a habitual nor violent criminal — simply a man who became hooked on methamphetamines and began stealing to support his habit. Multiply his story by the thousands, and one can begin to see why this is a problem, particularly in a nation where it’s claimed the average citizen commits three felonies a day.

That abundance of criminal law is referred to as “overcriminalization.” Prosecutors like this because it provides easy opportunities to secure plea deals. They can then claim to having gotten a criminal off the streets for at least a few months or years without risking a lengthy trial. But is justice truly served in a “one-size-fits-all” legal system?

This new push for sentencing reform comes at a time when the libertarian camp is succeeding with its insistence that marijuana be legalized, or at the very least decriminalized. Even New Jersey Governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie, with his tough prosecutorial background, argues the War on Drugs has failed, with many of the casualties unnecessarily taking up space in federal prisons. He’s right. The federal laws prohibiting usage or sale of marijuana remain on the books, though, so reversing those laws may be the next stage of this overall effort to reform criminal justice.

The case can be made that we are wasting precious lives through a system that has resulted in an American prison population in the millions, not thousands. Certainly our prisons are home to many people who cannot be trusted to walk among us without doing harm, but many others can be if given a second chance. Rare is the moment when both parties can cooperate and do good, but in this instance both Republicans and Democrats agree on the broad concepts of reform.

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