Old foes converge on reform

Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks… or in this case an old elephant. In a post-election retrospective look at this year’s Republican party platform, there is a noteworthy variance from platforms past. The oft-beaten drum of the “War on Drugs” was no longer the central tenet that it once was. In fact, drug enforcement was only given passing mention.

Mark Kleiman, a crime policy expert and professor at UCLA, characterizes the change as “significant.”

Mark Levin, director of the conservative program, Right on Crime, dubs the change as, “a bit more of a libertarian attitude.”

Right on Crime has garnered the support of many notable conservatives such as William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Jeb Bush. Paradoxically, many of Right on Crime’s core principles are also increasingly popular with liberals.

In something of a strong turn from previous party rhetoric, the 2012 platform reads in part: “While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community.”

Almost nobody who studies criminal justice disagrees. To this point, Kleiman also describes the new direction as “a lot less ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’”

Part of this reorientation owes to increasingly tight state coffers. Legislators — even here in Arkansas — have come to recognize that an ever-expanding prison system was simply unsustainable. One can either have more prisons or better schools and safer highways, but not both; and certainly not all three.

In recent months, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all championed crime reform legislation to support the GOP’s new mandates,. Most of these reforms contain provisions that call for reducing jail time for non-violent offenders. Conservatives like Levin herald the changes: “We’ve gone a long way in four years.”

Even so, there are many readily recognizable holdovers from demagogueries past. For example, in the 2008 platform there were calls for mandatory sentences for “gang conspiracy crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, rape, and assaults resulting in serious bodily injury.” In 2012, this language was broadened to include “all gang crimes, repeat drug dealers, robbery, and murder.”

The expanding margins notwithstanding, the odd convergence of what was once the exclusive philosophical purview of ultra-liberal advocates of correctional reform with the extremities of right wing fiscal conservancy shows that these respective constituencies can and should work together. Often their interests align — just as long as their dogma can just be set aside. One wonders what this productive and radical dynamic might do if it were transplanted into the current “fiscal cliff” debate.

Inimai Chettiar of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, “…I joined legislators and lawyers from all sides of the political spectrum to help launch the American Bar Association’s (ABA) initiative to “Save States Money, Reform Criminal Justice, and Keep the Public Safe.” I spoke about the urgent need for smart reforms to our criminal justice system — alongside members of Right on Crime… district attorneys, chief justices, and Mark Earley (CEO of faith-based Prison Fellowship Ministries).”

Chettiar goes on to say, “As a religious Christian, I work tirelessly to reform our criminal laws because that’s what my faith calls me to do. After studying law and economics, I came to understand how finance and faith-based compassion can often work in tandem to achieve social and racial equality…. Because they realize that our prison industry wastes massive amounts of taxpayer dollars while doling out racially biased justice.”

Far more people with a voice and a platform need to take this leap across the aisle. It may seem like a broad step, but it’s a lot safer than staying the old course.