The iconoclastic John Tierney, the Lost Libertarian of the Times, writes himself onto the front page with a long article about the folly of mandatory sentencing and America's high incarceration rate.
Yes, it's the Times, but Mr. Tierney does not belabor us with quotes from hand-wringing libs. He is throwing punches from the right:
Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.
Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.
While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for other criminals. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.
Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
These views are hardly universal, particularly among elected officials worried about a surge in crime if the prison population shrinks. Prosecutors have resisted attempts to change the system, contending that the strict sentences deter crime and induce suspects to cooperate because the penalties provide the police and prosecutors with so much leverage.
Some of the strongest evidence for the benefit of incarceration came from studies by a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, who found that penal policies were a major factor in reducing crime during the 1990s. But as crime continued declining and the prison population kept growing, the returns diminished.
“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”
We hear from a boogey-man of the left, commenting on a particular case Mr. Tierney details in his story:
Looking back on the case, Judge Vinson said such disparate treatment is unfortunately all too common. The judge, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who is hardly known for liberalism (last year he ruled that the Obama administration’s entire health care act was unconstitutional), says he still regrets the sentence he had to impose on Ms. George because of a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record.
“She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable,” Judge Vinson said recently. “So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.
“The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but when a legislative body says this is going to be the sentence no matter what other factors there are, that’s draconian in every sense of the word. Mandatory sentences breed injustice.”
As Republicans cast about for an agenda, reforming the war on drugs would be a good place to look. Obviously, they can't outbid the Democrats in softness on crime, but there should be a Nixon-to-China opportunity for Republicans to position themselves as the party that can be sensibly softer on crime.