Saturday, January 29, 2011

Say, What?

I had to stop and clean my spectacles this morning because I couldn't believe what I was reading: conservatives making sense on justice reform.

Reduced sentences for drug crimes. More job training and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders. Expanded alternatives to doing hard time.

In the not-too-distant past, conservatives might have derided those concepts as mushy-headed liberalism — the essence of "soft on crime."

Nowadays, these same ideas are central to a strategy being packaged as "conservative criminal justice reform," and have rolled out in right-leaning states around the country in an effort to rein in budget-busting corrections costs.
[Emphasis added]

Yes, that's exactly what I read the first time with smudged and streaked glasses. Now, the conservatives haven't gone all soft on crime, or suddenly had a change of heart when it comes to the inequities built into our justice system. They've finally just realized how incredibly expensive simply locking people away can be.

... with most states suffering from nightmare budget crises, many conservatives have acknowledged that hard-line strategies, while partially contributing to a drop in crime, have also added to fiscal havoc.

Corrections is now the second-fastest growing spending category for states, behind Medicaid, costing $50 billion annually and accounting for 1 of every 14 discretionary dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States.

While I would prefer a more humane analysis of the justice and prison systems, I'll take this as an important first step. And I do think it is a first step, a giant one, because hints of a second step are visible in some of the language being used to justify the shift:

"Maybe we swung that pendulum too far and need to reach a cost-effective middle ground here," said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which launched the advocacy group last month. "We have to distinguish between those we are afraid of and those we are just mad at." [Emphasis added]

And let's face it, at this point, conservatives are going to have an easier time of it when it comes to such reform than liberals would. Since both sides of the aisle have an interest in the reform, this is one time when some bipartisanship is quite welcome.

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