Policy shift on punishment good first step

Freedom New Mexico

We’re not sure whether it constitutes, as Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, put it, “a seismic shift in the political landscape with conservatives departing from the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ philosophy,” but it is potentially a significant move. A group of prominent conservatives, along with conservative and libertarian think tanks, has endorsed a policy shift away from punishment and quite possibly toward common sense when it comes to crime and punishment.

Prison Fellowship, founded by former Nixon aide (and jailbird) Chuck Colson, has worked quietly to bring conservatives around to recognizing excesses and failure in the criminal justice system. Since serving his own time in prison for campaign finance violations, former California Assemblyman Nolan has worked with Prison Fellowship to make the justice system more about restoring victims than imposing severe punishment. Perhaps it has taken the present financial crisis, in which most states face looming deficits, to bring more people around to seeking accountability and fiscal discipline from prison systems.

Among conservatives who have signed what is called a Right on Crime statement are former Attorney General Ed Meese; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former drug “czar” Asa Hutchinson; Dr. John DiIulio, George W. Bush’s first director of his faith-based initiative; Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and David Keene of the American Conservative Union. In addition to demanding accountability from corrections systems, they decry the over-criminalization of society. “Criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is either blame-worthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to grow government and undermine economic freedom,” the statement reads.

We might have preferred a stronger statement to the effect that criminal law should be reserved for actions that directly and unambiguously harm another human being, with “harm” defined rather narrowly. But the Right on Crime statement is at least a step in the right direction.

The conservatives who signed this statement might do well to urge those in Congress over whom they have some influence to endorse Virginia Democratic Sen. James Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act. It would simply establish a commission to review criminal law at the federal level. Sen. Webb has said that the options should include, in addition to sentencing reform, treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. As the soaring costs and meager benefits of the war on drugs become increasingly apparent, even conservatives may come around.