They say if you’re not a liberal at 25, you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative at 35, you have no brain. I think I’ve actually mixed those two up, judging by how ‘soft’ I’ve become with regard to the corrections system in America. When it comes to justice reform, I’m a hard moderate who can find flaws in almost everything we have in practice. But I haven’t always been this way. I used to be a lock-em-up, throw away the key, anti-drug, pro-death penalty Republican. I just had no reasonable explanation for that ideology.
Over the few past years, I’ve worked for a criminal defense attorney, run a district attorney’s race, and had a friend who was wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes. I’ve seen judicial discretion usurped by higher-ups while prosecutors and police sometimes work too closely. I’ve seen the system fail from many different viewpoints.
More recently, the failures and my political ideologies have piqued my interest in the Georgia Department of Corrections, legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly, and the advocacy of organizations on the national level. I wish there was more to see out of Congress, but many of the justice reform bills are at a constant stalemate.
Why, though? Why is there little to no movement? It’s because Republicans are unwilling to move and scared to lose their “tough on crime” reputation. The biggest misconception still today is that those who believe in criminal justice reform are just liberal hacks or pro-drug hippies. That’s simply not the case. Incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people on the state and federal level who have not committed a crime against a person is not conservative. Spending 25% percent of the Department of Justice annual budget on prisons is not conservative. Having 1 in 31 Americans behind bars, on probation, or on parole is not conservative. Saying you’re “pro-family” but allowing 1 in 28 children to have a parent who is incarcerated is not conservative. Allowing legislatures to set standards for justice and sentencing instead of elected and appointed judges is not conservative.
In 2012, as taxpayers we spent $60 billion on prisoners, with federal prisoners costing Americans nearly $30,000 each every year – if they aren’t on death row. Interestingly, it costs $80.25 per day for a federal inmate, while Georgia inmates are said to cost about $46 per day. It may seem small until you consider there are 218,000 federal inmates and far too many are nonviolent drug offenders. Regardless, mass incarceration is costing a fortune, especially when you consider hidden costs not originally appropriated in budgets.
Since 1980, our federal prison population has increased by 800%, but the biggest problem of all is that “tough on crime” doesn’t actually make communities safer. It’s a false sense of security that we’ve fallen for in an effort to feel like we are holding society to a moral standard even though we aren’t actually getting hardened criminals off the street. After all, there are more than 400,000 acts that carry a criminal penalty in the United States.
According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group seeking to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, 92% of drug offenders in federal prisons didn’t play a leadership role in the crime they committed, meaning they aren’t the kingpin. Without the kingpin, it’s unlikely the drug operation ceased after arrest. Further, 83% of those had no weapon involved in their crime. Those numbers are based on the 20,600 federal drug offenders sentenced in 2015 alone and only 4% of those 20,000+ sentenced received a sentence of probation. Worse, incarceration is said to cost 8X as much as probationary supervision.
Even so, we’ve come a long way from where we were.
In Georgia, we’ve made decent strides as Governor Deal pushed to “ban the box” for state agencies and licensing boards who used to require criminal history to be disclosed on applications, we’ve reduced the availability of criminal records for some low-level first-time offenders, added education programs in prisons to reduce recidivism, and allowed some convicted persons to maintain their drivers licenses – all of this with the vision in mind that those who are willing and able to obtain and maintain a job after serving time are more likely to succeed and less likely to return to prison. Considerable foresight and an open mind has saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But here, we face a massive culture stigma that is hindering progress more than anything.
Unfortunately, the Georgia General Assembly passes legislation with mandatory minimum sentences nearly every year. Our elected officials lack the understanding that not all crimes are created equal and that those chosen to serve The People may not be the best decision makers when it comes to the legal system. The legislature continues to expand the supervisory authority of the state with agencies like the Georgia Department of Community Supervision and the extension of private probation companies around the state. Georgia is also home to 5 private prisons – another issue for another day – but a problem nevertheless. It seems, above all, our elected officials are unwilling to step up to the plate and explain to voters why less prison is more efficient.
On the federal level, there is no parole – something that went into effect in 1987. Prison terms are served until completion because there is no supervisory agency. While “good behavior” can take time off the back end, it doesn’t do much for inmates once they’re released. There’s also a shortage of violent criminals in federal prisons. Most murderers, rapists, child molesters, and the like are in state prisons. Mandatory minimum sentences are still a major hindrance to justice on the federal level as well. Drugs are measured by the amount of plants or in grams with strict definitions set in black and white, essentially eradicating all judicial discretion. Without even utilizing or brandishing a firearm during the commission of a federal drug offense, mere possession of a weapon with a silencer can put someone away for a mandatory 30 years for the first offense and for life on a second offense. Those sentences don’t include the punishment for the actual drug offenses. Do you want someone serving life in prison on your dime for growing weed in their backyard?
The conservative, limited government answer is NO.
I supported Rand Paul both in his presidential run and his Senate re-election because I believe he is right on crime. He has a massive platform to articulate how fiscally responsible it is to reevaluate how we’re running the criminal justice system. He joins Senator Mike Lee and Congressmen Justin Amash and Thomas Massie in a quest to change the mentality surrounding the correctional system in America. Surprisingly, I stood with President Obama as he reduced the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who had already served out the minimum sentences, something that’s far too often considered taboo for conservatives…for no good reason.
The justice system doesn’t have to just be about punishment, and it can include reform and rehabilitation. It should never be about politics, partisanship, or profit.
Organizations like FreedomWorks, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, Right on Crime, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition, are illustrating that political ideologies across the political spectrum can see rewards in justice reform and benefits to our communities. We, The People, just have to open our minds to it and allow our elected officials to cross party lines to work together.