A Conversation On Criminal Justice

February 11, 2014

It was last July that I got a text message from my office that the president wanted to call me. My first thought was, The “President of what?”

This was right in the middle of the fight about defunding the Affordable Care Act.

I had just published a book explaining how Chief Justice Roberts had botched the individual mandate case.

They didn’t say what he wanted – just that I should stay near a phone. It was a little like being back in school and told to see the principal… except the principal had the nuclear launch codes.

Add to that, neither the president nor myself are what you’d call glad-handing, back-slapping politicians like a Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.

In short… this was shaping up to be one of the all-time awkward conversations in the history of the telephone.

But it wasn’t. Turns out he was calling to talk about criminal justice reform, and to thank me for the work I was doing. And he pledged his support to get something passed in this Congress.

The earth did not stop spinning on its axis, and cats and dogs did not start living together. But that day, I knew. The political ground had shifted, and criminal justice reform was finally on the table.

I know that other speakers today have – or will – address specific provisions and strategies for reforming sentencing, incarceration, and reintegration policies.

So with the few minutes I have, I’d like to explain why I am involved in criminal justice reform, and why I think conservatives have such an important role to play in this debate.

America’s criminal justice system is in need of reform not because current policies have failed, but in many ways because those policies have succeeded. This is an important point for reformers to recognize, I think.

Prevailing law-enforcement strategies have helped make communities safer around the country.

And yet, the current system, for all its merits, nonetheless leaves too many Americans behind – some of them reformed offenders languishing in prison… some of them innocent men, women, and children on the outside, trapped in fraying communities with too little security and too few fathers, uncles, and older brothers.

A generation of tougher-on-crime policies has created new challenges that it’s up to our generation now to meet.

We have the challenge of over-criminalization; of over-incarceration; and over-sentencing. We have a mountain of empirical evidence demonstrating the social and economic value of stable, intact families – and the costs of their breakdown.

We have prison policies that make rehabilitation the exception rather than the norm. And we have regulations that make it unnecessarily difficult for even reformed offenders to build a new life and earn an honest living after their release.

As a conservative, I believe the purpose of government is to protect and promote our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society – America’s two networks of human opportunity, where individuals come together to meet each other’s needs, improve each other’s lives, and help themselves by helping everyone else.

These networks cannot function when threatened by violent predators, and so society reserves the right to incarcerate them. But nor can our free market and civil society properly function when people are unnecessarily excluded from fully participating in them.

And so, incumbent in the power to punish crime is the corresponding responsibility to sentence offenders on an individualized basis and for no longer than necessary… and a commitment to rehabilitate as many offenders as possible, to prepare them for full re-integration into our society and economy.

And if reformed offenders can be restored to the families and communities that we know desperately need them – while at the same time freeing up additional resources to prosecute serious crimes and criminals - the moral argument for such restoration is no less compelling.

Whether they know it or not, all Americans have enjoyed the benefits of a generation of tougher law enforcement policies. But when benefits are diffuse, costs are usually concentrated – and almost always among the politically marginalized and economically vulnerable.

There are families and neighborhoods across the country who have borne the brunt of those costs.

For instance, if you brought together all the children in the United States with a parent in prison, they would make up a city roughly the size of Chicago.

These children and their families and neighborhoods too often find themselves locked in a different kind of prison: of poverty, instability, immobility, and isolation.

Criminal justice reform is good policy. It would more efficiently allocate prosecutorial resources and lead to fairer outcomes. But the real benefits of criminal justice reform won’t be found in government budgets, or even in courtrooms and prisons, but in homes and classrooms and churches and sidewalks in neighborhoods where hope can start to make a comeback.

Criminal justice reform is not so much about letting people out as it is bringing people in; to craft policies to help reformed offenders and their families fully participate in our society and economy, and to help build an America that gives them the opportunities we would want for ourselves.

Thank you very much, and good luck with the rest of the conference.