Tag Archives: Right on Crime

A red state struggles with reform

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-42-22-pmWhat constitutes real criminal-justice reform?

Advocates have warned for years that it’s a mistake to limit sentencing reforms to nonviolent drug offenses. Marie Gottschalk explores this in depth in a penetrating critique of the reform movement in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, where she talks about the policies aimed only at “non, non, nons” (nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses).

In fact, dividing the criminal world into violent and nonviolent is a “demonstrably false” construct to begin with, as Katherine Beckett argued in this recent American Prospect article, in part because drug offenders often have committed violence, while violent offenders are among the least likely to commit new offenses.

And yet public opinion favors reducing our over-reliance on prisons — but not for the majority of prisoners who are serving long sentences for violence and other serious offenses. Perhaps that’s because the public believes, against all evidence, that crime remains in a perpetual upward spiral (actually, and despite alarming spikes in some cities’ violent crime recently, crime of all types has fallen dramatically for the past 20-plus years).

In my latest article, written for TakePart, I look at the ups and downs of criminal-justice reform in a deep-red state, Oklahoma, and ask whether its efforts are doomed to irrelevance. The state can barely make progress toward the most minimal drug-offense reforms, much less toward reforms that might put a bigger dent in a system that practically everyone involved agrees is unaffordable, ineffective, and overly punitive.

The story is about more than just Oklahoma. It’s a look at justice reinvestment, a nonpartisan approach to reducing mass incarceration through policies aimed at achieving lower crime and lower imprisonment. Researchers in dozens of states have found savings in reducing the use of prisons, and advised plowing those savings into crime prevention programs. Conservatives from groups like Right on Crime support such efforts. For some on the left, that’s enough reason to oppose it, or at least look at it very skeptically. But, like many other red states that have gone before it, Oklahoma is trying to take these baby steps before making bolder moves. The question is whether success, as they define it, will be enough.

The timing of this assessment of Oklahoma’s fitful progress coincidentally comes as Congress admits it is too divided to take up the modest reforms — focused mainly on nonviolent drug offenses — that it has wrestled with, and watered down in efforts at compromise, for the past couple of years.

My story appears in a package of stories on criminal justice titled “Violence and Redemption,” with stories on rehabilitation programs for people who committed violent offenses (by Rebecca McCray), forgiveness and victim-offender dialog (by Jessica Pishko), and several others as part of TakePart’s “Big Issues” series, an ambitious project using longform journalism to explore … yes, big issues. This was my second story for TakePart, which is part of the documentary and film production company Participant Media. Last December I wrote about police reform, with a look at what’s happening in Minneapolis. I appreciate this publication’s dedication to telling in-depth stories about criminal justice, as part of its larger agenda promoting social awareness. What my editors and I liked about both stories is that they defied easy answers. They are, instead, about the struggle to address crime in constructive ways — and in ways that move beyond the broken systems of the past.

Seeking answers close to home

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.46.54 AMSeattle Weekly has just published this long, powerful story by Nina Shapiro that addresses a question at the heart of my work: what stake victims have in the debate over reforms in sentencing and prisons. And she takes on the toughest, most complex kind of case, one in which a violent crime poses questions about punishment, victims’ prerogatives, and emotions on the spectrum from vengeance to forgiveness.

Shapiro’s story starts with Alison Holcomb, the ACLU of Washington activist put in charge of a national ACLU campaign to attack mass incarceration. (Disclosure: the funding for that campaign comes from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which also funds the Soros Justice Fellowship program that supports my work for a year.) Holcomb and other experts explain why it’s possible to simultaneously support criminal-justice reform and crime victims’ interests. If that’s all that the story accomplished, it would be significant, as I have found few stories that deal so directly with these questions and debunk assumptions that justice for victims starts and ends with the harshest possible punishment for those who harmed them.

But the narrative quickly turns to an even more compelling and unsettling story when Holcomb’s husband, Gregg, agrees to talk to Shapiro about his father’s murder in a 1993 robbery. He opens up about the differences of opinion in his family over the killer’s parole chances and about his own mixed feelings, of letting go of hate while at the same time feeling guilty about that and fantasizing about hurting the killer’s family in the same way his family was hurt. Shapiro delicately renders a human and compelling portrait, illuminating the real issues that victims wrestle with as they seek answers about their loved one’s last moments. She does a fine job of explaining the competing concepts of traditional criminal justice and alternatives like restorative justice. Best of all, she paints in shades of gray.

One more thing: The story features an interview with Oscar Rubi, the man serving 25 years to life for killing Gregg Holcomb’s father. He was 17 at the time of the crime and is now eligible for parole. If that’s all that you think you need to know about Rubi and Holcomb to make value judgments about them, then read the story and listen.

For my conservative friends

In my personal life, I am surrounded by conservatives: friends and family who, no doubt, see my posts about criminal justice and think “flaming liberal.” So this post is for them.

I’ve blogged and tweeted many times about the organization Right on Crime and the phenomenon that has put conservatives — real, red-blooded political and social conservatives (plus the more likely libertarian-conservatives) — at the vanguard of criminal justice reform. This isn’t new. Anyone paying attention to this debate has seen so many stories rediscovering this trend that they have surely grown weary of journalists’ lame news hooks. I know I have. 

But this repetition hasn’t necessary sunk in to a public indoctrinated by decades of punishment politics and rhetoric. We got angry about a growing crime problem, and we lashed out in a sustained way — so much so that the average citizen takes it on faith that crime continues to spiral up, courts continue to coddle criminals, and if only prison sentences were truly tough we would have less crime.

In my upcoming series on crime victims, I will look at the politics of sentencing and reform in this context: how victims’ needs are not met by these myths; how the real nature of victimhood and survival gets buried in rhetoric that pretends to care about victims but really only cares about pounding convicted felons with ever-greater sentences; and how the tired, old political binaries of tough vs. soft cloud the thinking we should use when approaching these questions with an open mind and heart.

Still doubt me? Watch former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who’s about as conservative as they come, in this interview on why he attended this week’s Right on Crime conference. Cuccinelli explains why he and his comrades (if I may use that term) question the orthodoxy of extreme punishment and how they want to pool evidence showing which policy alternatives would serve our shared purposes at far less cost in money and humanity. (Update: See this full report on the conference, and note all the conservative politicians’ names.)

BREAKING: conservatives support justice reform

The critic’s voice in my head is grumbling about the steady stream of stories expressing surprise at the bipartisan turn in the criminal justice debate, as if it’s a sudden, new development that conservatives are talking like liberal reformers. For weeks, maybe months, it seems an everyday event that a writer makes the discovery: hey, Republicans sound reasonable on this “smart on crime” theme. The latest example comes on the front page of today’s New York Times, in this Jeremy Peters story.

It is only surprising if you haven’t been paying attention lately. The sentencing-reform community has been talking about this for years, as I posted here (noting that sentencing scholar and blogger Doug Berman wrote about it for The Daily Beast) and here (my summary of a history of the right’s moves in this direction by political scientists, David Dagan and Steven M. Teles in Washington Monthly). Back in November 2012, Berman provided a deep archive of his posts on the topic. So, no, it’s not new or all that surprising.

But so what? Each story, when done well (as Peters’ is), provides new developments and examples. More to the point, every big social change starts small and grows. First insiders notice, followed gradually by everyone else. Journalists rarely lead these movements. We react to what we see and hear.

And it’s not as though the change has caught on. All I need for a wake-up call is to talk to people who don’t spend all day every day obsessing about these topics, or read the comments on the typical crime news story. That provides a quick reminder that decades of hype and propaganda fuel an ingrained set of beliefs: that violent crime is out of control, that prisoners are coddled, that judges are soft and sentences light, that we just need to pound the felons harder to bring this chaos under control. All of those assumptions are demonstrably false, but try having a reasoned conversation about it with true believers.

So repeating the message, provided it’s based on solid evidence, can only help. I just hope my journalistic brethren learn to include a graf of context — may I suggest it appear in the top third of the story? — the proverbial qualifier that starts “to be sure” and goes on to note that this has been percolating for some time. I know that might bump you off the front page, the magazine cover, or the top of the website. But, on this topic, a little less hype is a good thing.

A history of “right on crime”

I’ve tried to make clear this blog’s main focus: the volatile politics of criminal justice policy and reform. The lock-’em-up fever that has locked both major parties in a death grip for generations — the one that has bankrupted us morally and financially with an unsustainable addiction to rates and terms of imprisonment that would embarrass barbaric, authoritarian societies — needs to change. And the only rational change comes from evidence-based policies that researchers develop and test, and that journalists explain in a way to deflate all the I’m-tougher-than-you rhetoric. One of the most hopeful signs, as I noted in this post, comes from the political right. If conservatives can dial it back, then there has to be hope, right?

Now along comes this sweeping, readable history of the movement led by conservatives to be smart on crime, not just tough on crime. It’s by a pair of political scientists, David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly. Their story shows clearly why the “right on crime” movement is not a fluke, not a moderating compromise, and not a development that came in spite of politics, but in fact is a product of ideology. As such, they write, it can be a model for bipartisan policy reforms of all sorts.

Here are their nut grafs:

Skeptics might conclude that conservatives are only rethinking criminal justice because lockups have become too expensive. But whether prison costs too much depends on what you think of incarceration’s benefits. Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits on trial. Discovering that the nation’s prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, they are beginning to attack it—and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed.

This will do more than simply put the nation on a path to a more rational and humane correctional system. It will also provide an example of how bipartisan policy breakthroughs are still possible in our polarized age. The expert-driven, center-out model of policy change that think-tank moderates and foundation check-writers hold dear is on the brink of extinction. If it is to be replaced by anything, it will be through efforts to persuade strong partisans to rethink the meaning of their ideological commitments, and thus to become open to information they would otherwise ignore. Bipartisan agreement will result from the intersection of separate ideological tracks—not an appeal to cross them. This approach will not work for all issues. But in an environment in which the center has almost completely evaporated, and in which voters seem unwilling to grant either party a decisive political majority, it may be the only way in which our policy gridlock can be broken.

They go on to trace the history, from Pat Nolan, the policy protege of Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, to attacks on prison rape, to the birth of the Right on Crime group, and on to Texas’ leadership role in policy innovations. Those innovations, among other things, aim at slowing the revolving door of inmates leaving and coming right back to prison, with victims in their wakes. The story and the movement it documents provide real hope that rehabilitation and workable re-entry programs aimed at shortening prison terms and helping more people avoid prison altogether will no longer be seen as sissy ideas. Now we just need all those tough-on-crime liberals to get on board!

(Hat tip to Doug Berman, who calls the Washington Monthly story a “terrific” “must-read” and then archives his many perceptive blog posts on this topic.)

Conservatives and sane criminal justice policies

Doug Berman, who writes the excellent Sentencing Law & Policy blog, penned this important piece for The Daily Beast arguing that a President Romney could be a more effective criminal-justice reformer than President Obama. It’s pure speculation, because Romney has made criminal justice policy about as big a priority as Obama has — which is to say, not much at all. But Berman bases his theory on the presence and persuasiveness of yet another important blog I highly recommend: Right on Crime. For months, this group has made some of the most effective arguments for a “smart on crime vs. tough on crime” approach. It’s great ammo for liberals, too, who can point out that even red-blooded conservatives can advocate progressive-seeming policies. Fearful of the “soft on crime” label (which is probably what keeps Obama off the front lines), liberals have generally joined the lynch mob that for decades has ratcheted up penalties. No sentence can be tough enough, in political terms. The Right on Crime folks argue, instead, that these policies not only cost far too much, but they fundamentally don’t work (and, I’d add, are unjust and cruel).

My only fears: These arguments will wither in the face of tired, old rhetoric about rampant crime (it isn’t) and soft courts (they most decidedly are not). Not only that, but when public finance and the economy recover, all the reformers will forget this little fling they had with sanity.

For now, however, we can be thankful for Right on Crime and Berman and all the folks who wonder where all the lock-em-up-forever, outlaw-everything madness leads us.