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CPAC: The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform

If only Nixon could go to China, then, in the opinion of Grover Norquist, only conservatives can reform the criminal justice system.

The president of Americans for Tax Reform joined Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik to speak against mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of a criminal justice system more focused on rehabilitation than simple retribution. As Perry put it, “We’re not a soft on crime state, but I hope we get the reputation of being a smart on crime state.”

Kerik has experienced the criminal justice system from both sides, first as a cop, then as an inmate when he pled guilty to eight felony tax and false statement charges [1]. He spent three years in jail, but was able to resume his life and his consultancy work when he was freed. That opportunity isn’t available to most felons, he pointed out. In his experience,

I was sentenced to three years, I knew men who were sentenced to a year and a day, but it’s not really a year and a day. A felony conviction is a life sentence. … You can’t punish people for life for making a mistake

Perry agreed with Kerik, saying that the mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines are “a really bad concept.” Long jail stays are costly to the state (which must feed and house criminals) and to the prisoners themselves (who spend more time adrift). He’s worked to shorten sentences where it’s safe to do so, and, as a result, Texas closed two prisons [2] last August.

Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project [3], which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation.

The moderator and director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, Pat Nolan, argued that restrictions on felons had gone beyond those required for public safety, pointing out that “barber” is among the many professions that felons are barred from entering [4]. Hair cutting is, ironically enough, one of the few skills a convict is very likely to learn on the inside.

Conservatives don’t retain enough of their skepticism of bureaucracy when the topic is criminal justice, Nolan said. He told the attendees that conservatives “should be as suspicious of the Department of Corrections and their spending as we are of the Departments of Transportation and Health.”

His sentiment was echoed by Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason at a subsequent panel on the future of the ACU when she said, “When you put someone in charge of environmental regulation, they’re probably going to be terrible at it, but when you give them a gun then they’re the armed services or a cop. I think it would be a good idea for us to carry over our skepticism about the EPA.”

There was no debate at the criminal justice panel; all the speakers seemed to agree on the necessary reforms. The question of who was blocking these reforms was left unanswered. The closest hint was given when Norquist said that these reforms had to begin in red states, since there would be too much skepticism for pilot programs from states like Vermont for the results to be taken seriously by conservatives. The Right On Crime [5] project, to which Norquist is a signatory, is working, state by state, to make the case for reform to skeptical legislators.

Right On Crime comes armed with statistics on recidivism rates and taxpayer money saved, but, near the end of the panel, Rick Perry put aside pragmatic concerns to explain his support in terms of values. He told the audience simply, “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America is about.”

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#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 8, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

That’s what it takes I guess. Conservatives being thrown in prison.

For more than a century the criminal justice system has been ion need of redress, but not until the wealthy and connected have to go through the system does it finally gain traction.

“Blessed is he who has not been so deprived, yet he gets it.”

I get it.

#2 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 8, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

So, having made any notion of fairness, of proportionality when it comes to sentencing, of effective oversight and skepticism when it comes to the police, and of following the Constitution when it comes to searches, seizures, and procedures generally, synonymous with being “soft” on crime, with over solicitation for “criminals’ rights” and obsession with “technicalities,” and with “blaming the victim,” NOW the right, somehow, wants to lead to the fight back from the near police state that characterizes American criminal justice? Like career Red baiter Nixon going to China.

How about, more humbly and modestly, instead, the Right starts the process by stopping the drumbeat of soft of crime, of no sentence can ever be too severe, of populist, proto fascist and crypto racist posturing, and of glorifying a militarized police force that has gone completely off the deep end, treating every minor disturbance as if it calls for a Special Forces type SWAT response, with a take no prisoners, “we’ll kill your dog if it barks too much,” attitude. Rather than going directly from a half century campaign of demonization of “liberals” for not growling as loudly and as menacingly about crime as they do, how about conservatives refrain from immediately playing the headline grabbing “going to China” gambit and simply stop going to John Birch Society meetings first?

Let the liberals dump the death penalty. Stop standing in the way of the efforts to end the insane, counterproductive and cruel “war on drugs,” with marijuana legalization being the first step. Help make the police accountable, first of all by appointing judges who will enforce the Bill of Rights. Or, at least, not standing in the way of their appointment.

And how about, just maybe, not telling us that Vermont can’t be one of the places where all of this can happen? Having spent fifty years making political hay out of ridiculously exaggerated anti crime hysteria, perhaps conservatives should be willing to share the credit with moving in a more humane, more sensible, more Constitutional, and more reasonable generally direction, with liberals and moderates?

#3 Comment By Egypt Steve On March 8, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

Bernie Kerik’s out of prison? That’s too bad.

#4 Comment By WorkingClass On March 8, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

philadelphialawyer says:

“Let the liberals dump the death penalty. Stop standing in the way of the efforts to end the insane, counterproductive and cruel “war on drugs,” with marijuana legalization being the first step. Help make the police accountable, first of all by appointing judges who will enforce the Bill of Rights. Or, at least, not standing in the way of their appointment.”

And I would add put the private prisons out of business.

Oh. And bring the office of the President under the rule of law. The way to do that is to first win the office.

If the Republicans would do this for the people they would be RICHLY rewarded at the ballot box.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 9, 2014 @ 10:45 am

“So, having made any notion of fairness, of proportionality when it comes to sentencing, of effective oversight and skepticism when it comes to the police, and of following the Constitution when it comes to searches, seizures, and procedures generally, synonymous with being “soft” on crime, with over solicitation for “criminals’ rights” and obsession with “technicalities,” and with “blaming the victim . . .”

Now you know these comments were I think accurate. If you were a woman I would hope you were single. Despite not being a felon, I think the criminal justice system is long overdue. And I don’t think we need to make the police all ‘bad guys’ to do it. It’s just that system that works against so many of its intended purposes. We hate to look at because if we did we’d be frustrated and guilty — instead we resign it to: “They must have done something.”

And what is very interesting is that liberals have spent more time clamoring for the right of two men to get tax breaks (that is the issue of same sex unions — one does not need the acknowledgment of government to be happy) for people whose incomes and connection have left them quite outside any harm besides being called names, instead of efforts that are bread and butter to people’s lives – such as criminal justice improvements.

As for private prisons, I am not sure that there’s a good deal of evidence that they are worse than those run by government.

Now about thinks Nixon thing, and you were doing so well. Pres. Richard Nixon was no m ore a red baiter than John Kennedy or Robert Kennedy, whose claim to fame was rooting out communists (an affiliation that was perfectly legal under our system) and destroying their lives and careers to include sending them to the prison system you claim is arcane.
_______________

I agree that we have ignored the matter and the place to start if not after people are arrested but before they get into the meat grinder. That we should revisit rehab. And that we should prevent the state from engaging in the taking of taking of life in a system rife with issues.

And further, we should embrace the “Innocence Project” and similar advances.

In all of these cases I cannot think of anything liberal about holding government in check.

#6 Comment By Uncle Billy On March 10, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

End the war on drugs. A complete failure. We have criminalized a medical problem. Put people in jail who become addicted to painkillers after surgery, etc.? I have had enough of this insanity. I am no liberal, I am a lifelong Republican, but even I can see stupidity when it hits me over the head.

#7 Pingback By Out And About (03/13/2014) » All Things Expounded On March 13, 2014 @ 11:45 pm

[…] In this article, Pat Nolan argues that “Conservatives don’t retain enough of their skepticism of bureaucracy when the topic is criminal justice” […]