David Frum, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, mulls the problem posed by the American penal system, noting that although it has helped to achieve lower crime rates over the past few decades, those gains have come at enormous social and financial costs. He wonders if there might be any way to rehabilitate some offenders so that we don't need to keep them locked up.
Not necessary, I say. We can vastly reduce our incarceration rate by making just a few simple changes to the way we punish certain crimes. First, we can end the War on Drugs, with its draconian policy of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Long prison sentences for small-time dealers don't reduce the amount of narcotics that get sold in the U.S., but they do put plenty of relatively harmless people (small-time dealers, addicts and the like) in jail for years at a time. I'm not saying we need to totally decriminalize drug use - with the exception of marijuana, I think that's a problematic proposition with most drugs - but we don't need to punish someone who's caught with a few grams of meth or crack cocaine by locking them up for 20 years at a stretch. Second, we can reduce the use of prison time as our preferred method of punishment. The primary advantage of prison is that it isolates convicted criminals from society and prevents them form perpetrating more crime. When dealing with genuine psycopaths like rapists, murderers, and armed robbers, this is a necessity, but for many non-violent offenders, the benefit gained from doing so may not be worth the costs. A more efficient probation system, better manner of house arrest, etc. may work just as well, at lower cost. UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, who has spent much of his career studying this problem and recently wrote a well-reviewed book on the topic, has many interesting suggestions along these lines, some of which he outlines in this article.
When it comes to crime policy, I don't think "lock 'em up and throw away the key" is a sufficient philosophy for conservatives to have; it permits both of too much potential for abuse of government power and an outrageous amount of wasteful spending. Enforcing the laws of society is a necessary duty of the government under anyone's conception, but I don't see why so many on the right remain committed to a simplistic, grossly inefficient, and costly way of doing so. I hope that the fact that serious right-of-center thinkers like Frum are considering the question means that mainstream conservatism may start moving off its dogma on this issue - but the fact that the Palinites have denounced him as a pointy-headed intellectual only one step removed from a liberal makes me doubt it.
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