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Yesterday, Mona Charen posted some skeptical thoughts on justice reform. I’ve been working on this subject for a few months now, so I thought I might offer some responses to her queries. The short of it is: she’s right that there are reasons to be cautious about reform, but there really are problems that need addressing. Furthermore, some reasonable answers have already been offered to many of her questions.
First of all, I should commend Mona for correctly debunking the oft-cited but highly misleading “two thirds of inmates are non-violent drug offenders” claim. As she reports, that is only true of Federal prisons, which represent a very small minority of America’s inmate population. The make-up of state prisons is quite different, and a majority of inmates have been convicted for violent crimes. So no, it isn’t the case that most of our nation’s inmates are basically harmless people who maybe used (or sold) a few drugs. The majority are there because they’ve hurt people, and it would be quite foolish just to release them en masse.
Republican presidential candidates should not be talking about “the new Jim Crow.” That phrase is pulled directly from Michelle Alexander’s foolish, irresponsible book (of the same name), and we shouldn’t lend it any credence. Incarceration is not the new Jim Crow, and approaching it that way will only precipitate a different kind of broken system.
Nevertheless, we should be looking for ways to help impoverished communities rebuild themselves. We should, as well, be interested in finding more effective, and less expensive, methods of crime control and rehabilitation. Speaking as someone on the justice reform bandwagon, I’m very motivated by the thought that it’s essential to offer a counter-narrative to the sweeping “racial justice” demands of Black Lives Matter. I don’t support their proposals, but social angst about an ill-functioning justice system may well precipitate such irresponsible changes if we can’t offer a more appropriate remedy to real problems.
Mona poses some good questions. How should we handle parolees who continue to offend? How do we reassure the public that the system is fair? Will we undermine people’s respect for law if we don’t respond aggressively enough to offenses that are still serious, even if not violent?
Serious, responsible people have been working on all of these questions. A few short answers: yes, there are better ways to make use of parole and probation. Programs like HOPE (using swift and certain sanctions to motivate parolees to follow the rules) have gotten excellent results, and are being modeled in many places around the country. One nice thing about probation is that it often enables offenders to pay restitution to their victims, and both of these options are safer and more feasible now that we have technology that enables us to keep tabs on an offender’s location and monitor his alcohol use. That’s not going to be safe for hardened, violent criminals, but for many smaller-scale lawbreakers it’s effective and considerably cheaper than years’ worth of incarceration.
Concerning “suites and streets,” the biggest two points of concern are probably pretrial proceedings and prosecutorial power. I don’t believe that the system is awash in bigotry. But I do believe that large-scale incarceration has created some “efficiency” of a kind that often undermines real justice, and no one should be shocked to hear that people are more likely to get squashed by the justice machine if they’re too poor to afford good legal help. I have a piece in the works right now (meaning, finished but not published) on bail reform and helping the indigent get better legal help. But if you really want to know right now, you can read the book on it. Excellent, feasible suggestions (most of them already tried in particular locales) are already out there, and they don’t call for a massive relaxation of law enforcement generally.
It’s challenging to make justice reform into a sexy topic, because the actual problems in the system don’t lend themselves to top-down, grand-gesture reform. They’re more the sort that call for psychiatrists and policy wonks to put their heads together, developing practical solutions that ideally should be tailored to the needs of particular states and regions. From a journalistic standpoint, it’s a little bit hard to sell that, while it’s much easier to sell the sweeping, dramatic narrative of Black Lives Matter. Pragmatic nuts-and-bolts reform can seem kind of boring to outsiders (though not to, say, the indigent defendant who gets to watch his kids grow up instead of spending several years in prison), but it’s often the thing that’s actually needed.
At the very least, though, we should avoid broadcasting the message that conservatives are embracing this issue just because they want to jump on the liberal racial justice bandwagon. That’s not true. They’re embracing this issue because they realize that law enforcement and corrections are not immune to the sorts of problems that arise in every large-scale system that’s funded by taxpayers and administered by bureaucrats. Sometimes the system needs some restructuring. Conservatives are working out ways to make it better.