Has the Tough on Crime Era Ended?

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Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice

Edited by Inimai Chettiar and Michael Waldman

Book Review

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow has helped spark a national debate on the mass incarceration of Africans. Solutions, a collection of essays, is intended as a response. As many are written by presidential hopefuls, the range of solutions is cautious. None of the authors support the most obvious (and popular) criminal justice reform, namely legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use.*

Likewise there are no essays by anti-Wall Street senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Both were viewed as prospective presidential candidates when Solutions was being readied for publication.

That being said, I was intrigued to see so many Republican politicians, both of the neoconservative Christian and the libertarian stripe, abandon their tough-on-crime rhetoric to argue for reducing prison populations. The forward, by Bill Clinton, argues that despite extreme political polarization on other issues, ending the incarceration of Americans for minor and victimless crimes is one area ripe for genuine bipartisan cooperation.

In his essay, Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, suggests that conservatives, applying their core principles of personal responsibility, accountability and limited government, have become “the most vocal champions of prison reform.” In this regard, he and other key conservatives have clearly parted company with the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which continues to lobby for tough-on-crime legislation and increasing prison privatization.

Levin and editor Inimai Chettiar hold up Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania as model states, due to their shift from prison building to community based alternatives. As Levin readily admits, Texas reforms were driven by a need to control ballooning prison costs in an era of severe budgetary shortfalls. He brags how Texas has saved taxpayers billions of dollars by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences (allowing judges more discretion in sentencing), by offering drug and mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration, by increasing formal rehabilitation and through various measures aimed at increasing the employability of ex-offenders (including a provision for law abiding ex-offenders to seal their criminal record).

A few of the essays read like stump speeches, full of vague ideological platitudes without meaningful detail on how prison reform can be accomplished. Others are surprisingly detailed.

Here are some examples:

Vice-President Joe Biden (D): reads like a stump speech and quotes extensively from Martin Luther King. He calls for restoring police staffing cuts and more genuine community policing. Doesn’t explain where the funding will come from, given the massive debt this administration has racked up for bank bailouts and the wars in the Middle East.

Hillary Clinton (D): reads like a stump speech, with frequent references to what Robert Kennedy would do and “my friend” Nelson Mandela. Calls for respect for the law, ending inequality, reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, ending racial profiling by the police, increasing use of drug diversion (ie mandatory treatment as an alternative to incarceration), restoring police staffing cuts, increasing community policing and restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. She also makes no mention of how all this would be funded.

Ted Cruz (US Senator Texas – R): calls for more jury trials and an end to mandatory minimum sentencing. Proposes a federal law requiring prosecutors to disclose all exculpatory** evidence before an accused can enter into a plea bargain. Also supports the Military Justice Improvement Law. This would increase military convictions for rape by transferring responsibility for prosecution from unit commanders to independent federal prosecutors.

Mike Huckabee (former Arkansas governor – R): would eliminate waste by treating drug addicts, rather than incarcerating them. He would also work to build character in American young people by strengthening families.

David Keene (former president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Conservative Union: would reduce the number of crimes punishable by prison, end three strikes laws (which require mandatory life imprisonment for a third felony), amend grounds for probation revocation so they’re only used to protect communities from violent criminals and end arbitrary police violence against African Americans for nonviolent crimes.

Martin O’Malley (former Maryland governor – D): would abolish the death penalty because it’s expensive, ineffective, wasteful and unjustly applied (poor minorities are far more likely to receive the death penalty because they can’t afford adequate legal representation). He states that only six other (mainly authoritarian) countries have the death penalty: Iran, Iraq, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. (For some reason he omits Egypt.)

Rand Paul (US Senator Kentucky – R): would end mandatory minimum sentencing, police militarization, disproportionate sentencing of minorities for drug crimes and civil asset forfeiture laws.** He would also allow juvenile/nonviolent offenders to have their criminal records sealed.

Rick Parry (former Texas governor – R): calls for increasing use of drug courts, expanded rehabilitation and mandatory drug and mental health treatment in lieu of incarceration.

Marco Rubio (US Senator Florida – R): would require federal government and regulatory agencies to publish all federal laws and regulations in one place, would end civil forfeiture laws and would rein in “out of control” regulatory agencies. (Me, too. I think they should start putting corporate white collar criminals in jail, but I doubt this is what he means).

Scott Walker (Wisconsin governor – R): advocates for more workplace drug testing and more programs to reduce heroin addiction.

James Webb (former US Senator Virginia – D): would appoint a federal commission on mass incarceration to study the problem some more (you can’t make this stuff up).


*At present marijuana has been legalized for recreational purposes in four states (Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado) and for medical purposes in 11 other states. Marijuana possession has been decriminalized or reduced to a misdemeanor in many other states. Cannabis possession for any purpose remains a felony in only six states (Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alabama).
*Exculpatory evidence is evidence that tends to exonerate a defendant of guilt.
**Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that allows law enforcement officials to seize, (without due process) property they assert has been involved in certain criminal activity. The burden remains on the defendant to initiate separate legal action to recover their property, even if they’re acquitted or charges are dropped.

Solutions is published under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded free at Solutions

10 thoughts on “Has the Tough on Crime Era Ended?

    • Great ap: imagine being able to trace all the Texas prisoners on the phone. A pity the 2nd article doesn’t have a date on it – it seems to refer to Texas prison growth in the 1990s. There are 2 essays on Texas in Solutions. You get the sense they had no choice but to reduce incarceration levels when the economic downturn hit. They talk about saving taxpayers $2 billion by canceling 2 new prisons that were planned.

      There is an important difference between state and federal government as states aren’t allowed to run a deficit. And clearly no one in Texas was willing to raise taxes to pay for the new prisons.

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  1. Once being involved in a “prison ministry” for many years, I have some experience with how prisoners are treated (like animals), and what they have to contend with (cruel and unusual psychotic guards and administrations).

    So here is my proposal: do away with the elite-owned government that makes money off of this industry (Merica’s last remaining industry, beyond war), and then take into custody every government official, and their elite-swine bosses, and use the already existing prisons as zoos; where the peoples of the world can come and view the vermin who have been raping and pillaging them and their families!

    Sorry for the extreme cynicism, but I’ve heard about “prison reform” many times before, and nothing is ever changed for the better. As you know, Dr B, you can’t trust what Merican politicians are up to, especially when it’s time for another presidential election farce. This could just be a ploy to soothe the fevered brows of Mericans of color. God knows, the repubs and dems don’t want demonstrations going on during their four year political circuses: the conventions.

    Political reform of any kind, which is touted as helping the people, always equates to a SCAM!

    Prisons may cost the people, in tax dollars, and the local governments as well, but prisons make loads of money for the powers that be, as I’m sure you already know.

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    • As I mention above, states aren’t allowed to run deficits. And lawmakers in Texas and elsewhere faced a stark choice between raising taxes to build new prisons or cutting all their other state services. In other words, the economic downturn forced them to look at community-based alternatives. You should really read the book. It’s free, and I think you would find it interesting.

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      • Yes, I understand. This is a subject that hits close to home. Beyond the prison ministry, I had a friend who was incarcerated for four years, and it pretty much destroyed his life.

        I will check out the book. Thanks.

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  2. Oh, and one more point. People who are mentally and emotionally unstable, like the dreaded “sex offenders”, the new communist plague, should be kept from the public until well enough to be returned, if ever. But they should not be kept in prisons, where they are tortured for the terms of their sentences, and then released on the public in even a worse state than they were before being arrested, tried and imprisoned!

    If the system is so concerned for “public safety”, then why does the system do business in this manner?

    You know why! Recidivism is key to the success of this perverse “corrections” system.

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    • I worked with sex offenders when I was in Seattle – many were very successfully maintained in the community with medications that reduced their testosterone level and sex drive. When given a choice between continued incarceration and parole with pharmaceutical treatment, they always opted for the latter.

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