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Opening Arguments

Crime and punishment

When three related things happen close together, it's worth considering the possiblity that we may have spotted the next trend.

The first thing I noticed was a complaint about cuts by the state in its mental health funding and how that was creating a situation in which too many with mental illnesses were ending up in the criminal justice system -- "It's like the 1950s again" was the specific comment. That came in an interview with the editorial board, and it wasn't from a soft-on-crime social worker. It came from Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries, who is having to cope with the problem at the jail.

The second was Gov. Mitch Daniels' strong endorsement of sentencing guidelines recommended by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which call for returning sentencing discretion to judges and making greater use of alternatives to prison for lesser offenders. The recommendations are aimed at copoing with the state's exploding prison population, caused in large part by a General Assembly eager to pass tougher laws but reluctant to approve money for additional prison space. 

Then there was this:

 Last week I received an email press release directing me to a new public policy website. On that website is a quote from Reagan administration Attorney General Ed Meese, saying it's time to reconsider mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. There is also a quote from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, suggesting we consider rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

They have my attention. Welcome to Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation aimed at changing the way conservatives think about criminal justice. Started by Texas attorney, author, and policy wonk Marc A. Levin, Right on Crime is a striking and welcome departure from the sloganeering that has moved conservative criminal justice policy for most of the last 40 years. "While the growth of incarceration took many dangerous offenders off the streets," says an introduction to the website, "research suggested that it reached a point of diminishing returns, as recidivism rates increased and more than one million nonviolent offenders filled the nation's prisons. In most states, prisons came to absorb more than 85 percent of the corrections budget, leaving limited resources for community supervision alternatives such as probation and parole, which cost less and could have better reduced recidivism among non-violent offenders."

Conservatism has long been identified with a "throw away the key" mentality. I think we're starting to see evidence that conservatives are seeing a problem with carrying that approach too far and are willing to think about the issue a little further. If that's the case, we could have an intriguing national conversation about crime and punishment.