Things are all Topsy-Turvy
It used to be that if you were calling for alternatives to harsh punishments and mass incarceration, then you were a progressive or a liberal.
You were against long sentences for criminal offenders?
Obviously, you were a bleeding-heart liberal. Maybe a radical. Possibly even a communist.
We were used to being able to tell who was blue or who was red by how tough they were on criminals. If you were tough on crime and believed in throwing the book at every criminal offender, then you were definitely red.
But if you believed that there was a role for parole and you thought that maybe there were other ways to deal with offenders besides long prison sentences, then for sure you were blue.
But not any more. Republicans, even some of the most conservative Republicans, are sounding an awful lot like the liberals we once knew.
Take Newt Gingrich, for instance. I opened up the Detroit Free Press editorial page recently and there was an op-ed by Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House and a very conservative guy from Georgia, writing that the Michigan criminal justice system needs to be overhauled.
Why is he advocating this?
Because the state of Michigan’s correctional system is burning through $2 billion every year. And, that’s not all. Gingrich says that the longer prison sentences judges have been handing out regularly for decades in Michigan are not making us any safer.
Gingrich, who about 20 years ago was saying that more prisons were urgently needed in the U.S., is now singing a new tune. He supports a criminal justice system that reflects fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, and a reliance on strategies that make better use of taxpayer dollars.
That would be what? Gingrich is advocating for smart alternative approaches to dealing with offenders – not just long imprisonment.
And look what they’ve been doing in Texas. Sure, they still have the death penalty and they still execute more people than any other state, but consider what they have done to their criminal justice system. Instead of continuing to invest in prisons, Texas has begun putting more money into drug courts and drug treatment. They have revamped their parole system so that former inmates who violate their parole receive other sanctions than an automatic trip back to prison. And Texas has been working at developing effective re-entry programs to help former inmates reintegrate more successfully back into society.
Then there’s U.S. Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, who has introduced sweeping legislation in Congress to reform what he refers to as the “broken criminal justice system.” The idea is to keep more people out of prison and to help those who have been in prison to have a second chance at the American Dream. Rand has teamed up with a Democratic Senator from New Jersey, Cory Booker, to sponsor some of this reform legislation. More recently, Paul has reached out to Hillary Clinton to suggest they work together to promote an agenda for criminal justice reform.
So what is going on?
Republicans, starting with Nixon and his “war on drugs” in the 1970s, co-opted the tough-on-crime approach; an approach, of course, that brought about mass incarceration. That used to be a good thing, according to conservatives. Lock the bad guys up, throw away the key, and we can all sleep easier at night.
However, in the past several years, more people – including folks like Gingrich and conservative Republicans – have concluded that having a prison system holding two million people is a bankrupt policy. And it has nearly bankrupted many states.
California has been spending $9.6 billion every year on its corrections system; Michigan spends two of every five dollars of its general fund on corrections. But it is not working for states to continue to shell out this kind of money.
The Republicans, along with Democrats, have figured it out: The get-tough-on-crime approach is fiscally irresponsible, doesn’t prevent any crime, and maybe even leads to more crime and recidivism. Besides that, there’s no way you can balance the budget when you are locking up people for nonviolent crimes for long sentences. There’s no way you can fix roads and repair the infrastructure when billions of dollars are diverted into policies in the criminal justice system that just do not work.
So, the conservative Republicans have taken the old progressive and liberal position that the justice system needs to be reformed. Gingrich, along with other conservatives, have formed a national movement called Right on Crime. They hope to advocate for needed reforms embracing smart-on-crime policies. This is what Democrats and people like Attorney General Eric Holder have been recommending for years.
But who knows. In this topsy-turvy world maybe the Republicans can form bipartisan coalitions to pull this off.
It’s needed – and it doesn’t matter how it gets done. Just as long as it gets done and there are major reforms to the criminal justice system.
It used to be that nobody could get elected unless they were tough on crime. Maybe Rand Paul can ride the criminal justice reform horse right into the White House.
Using a smart-on-crime campaign to get elected?
Now that would be a first!
But a welcome one.