Today’s New York Times carries a very good op-ed from Ross Douthat calling for a more sophisticated and nuanced policy towards imprisonment and criminal justice. I agree entirely with his central point that we need to steer a middle course on prison reform. We can’t go back to the “bad old days” of sky-high crime rates and short sentences for heinous crimes, but the country would be equally wrong to believe that the current policies of locking 2.3 million people in poorly run prisons is copacetic. In fact, most people who have given serious thought to the problems of America’s current prison system agree on roughly the same new set of policies: work to monitor some offenders more closely in the community rather than locking them up, fund drug treatment, keep prisons themselves safe, and encourage prisoners to work and get educated.
The problem is that politicians across the political spectrum just want to be seen as “tough on crime” and are unwilling to bend at all even when they know that other policies might be better for the public. Otherwise left-wing political leaders like Joe Biden (who introduced more crime-related bills than any other member of the Senate during his tenure) or former Maryland governor Parris Gelendenning (who never granted a pardon) tend to support more prisons and harsher punishment. On the other hand, three of the country’s most prominent recent Republican governors — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry — adopted policies on crime and prisons much more nuanced and, in some ways, liberal than prominent Democrats that preceded them in office. (Gray Davis, Bill Clinton, and Ann Richards respectively.) Aside from a reasonably small number of politically engaged evangelical Christians, however, there’s no obvious political constituency for nuanced, sometimes “softer” policies. Although a rough consensus has emerged on the right measures for criminal-justice reform, in other words, building the political will seems likely to take much longer.
– Eli Lehrer writes from Oak Hill, Va.