Shaking Up the Politics of “Tough on Crime”
Last week President Obama proposed huge budget increases for the federal prison system, disappointing anyone who might have hoped that a Democratic president would take a forceful stand against mass incarceration. Meanwhile, in recent months at least a few conservative politicians and pundits have begun to call — however faintly — for criminal justice reforms. What’s going on? For the past 20 years or so, it’s been a truism of American politics that you can’t win elections if you’re not “tough on crime” (read: if you don’t support harsher punishments, longer sentences, etc.) Democratic Party politicians, in particular, have feared the label “soft on crime” and lived by the credo, “No more Willie Hortons.” So, paradoxically, the self-proclaimed “law-and-order” Republican Party may actually have more leeway to call for sentencing reforms that would reduce the prison population. Or, perhaps the nationwide budget crisis is finally forcing politicians of all stripes to confront the reality that mass incarceration — whatever else it may be — is not the soundest fiscal policy.
In any event, here’s a recent editorial from the Colorado Springs Gazette — among the country’s most conservative papers — calling for sentencing reform, and portraying it as a non-partisan cause:
Prison spending was less than 3 percent of the Colorado budget 20 years ago. Today, in an era when the population base is aging and crime rates are dropping, the state spends 9 percent of its general fund to incarcerate convicts.
“It is clearly time to take a hard look at the sentence laws and policies that help drive run-away prison spending in Colorado,” said Mike Krause, a senior fellow at the conservative, free market Independence Institute.
Krause, along with The Gazette, the Pew Center on the States, and Prison Fellowship sponsored a forum at the Antlers Hilton Friday night in order to promote understanding of the need to reform Colorado sentencing standards to reduce the overhead of incarceration.
The panel featured Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, State Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, Richard Jerome from the Pew Center on the State’s Public Safety Performance Project, and Christie Donner, executive director and founder of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Suthers, Waller and Jerome are members of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which is proposing sentencing reforms that may lead to reasonable reductions in the prison population that won’t endanger the public. No one on the panel, Republican or Democrat, is even remotely soft on crime. Suthers, a former prosecutor who authored the book “No Higher Calling, No Greater Responsibility,” could be one of the most talented and passionate lawmen in the country.
In recent decades, Colorado has had the financial luxury to address crime with an old-fashioned lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality promoted with expedient political sound bites. Prisons are necessary evils, and each and every prisoner is 100 percent financial liability. Today, Colorado and the rest of society must reduce liabilities in the form of people who cost more than they produce. Fortunately, we live in a time that gives us an array of new options, such as reliable electronic surveillance, for non-violent offenders.
It’s not a legitimate Republican or conservative value to grow the prison population for the sake of tough-on-crime politics. We must be tough on crime and smart in our use of incarceration, the most expensive option for controlling a criminal.