Is encouraging crime by letting criminals out of jail good public policy? It depends on who you ask. The same thinking that insists we pass laws to limit guns and ammunition also believes that an unfair criminal justice system has put too many people in jail for the wrong reasons. Citizens have every right to protest unjust laws, but how about government ignoring the laws it passes, or declaring them unfair out of partisanship? How far can ignoring the law go before we can be accused of encouraging crime? Pretty far, it turns out.
Smart on Crime and dumb on public policy?
The president announced a new clemency program earlier this year (see: Trust America, Obama’s Nation of Laws, or Felons?) after the Justice Department had paved the way with Eric Holder’s 2013 Smart on Crime Initiative. Like Homeland Security’s disastrous immigration strategy, Smart on Crime claimed that we have to devote our scant law enforcement resources to the really bad guys and away from society’s unfortunates, promising:
To strengthen protections for vulnerable populations.1
Who the vulnerable are is up for dispute. Releasing felons from prison and encouraging crime by sending the message that sentences will be reduced doesn’t sound like a smart deterrent that will protect the innocent. More likely, the vulnerable populations of choice are those deemed unjustly imprisoned.
Race and social status shouldn’t determine innocence, guilt, or eligibility for clemency, but they can determine public policy when the pendulum swings from the right to the left. Is encouraging crime bad public policy, or partisan politics?
Encouraging crime by rethinking drugs, fraud, and theft
Democrats spent most of 2014 starry-eyed over the possibility of abusing executive powers to make policy decisions Congress won’t touch. Michigan Congressman Steve Cohen suggested that President Obama could make life better for non-violent offenders:
President Obama can and should use his Constitutional power to help bring all of these inmates the justice they deserve, and I hope he does so as soon as possible.2
Charges of over criminalization are nothing new. We have been down this long, tired road before. In 2005, Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush suggested that prison was not a good solution to gang violence:
Living in Chicago, I am well aware of how gang violence devastates communities,” said Rush. “However, research has shown that increasing prison terms does not reduce youth violence. By applying one-size-fit all penalties without individual distinction, it only further permeates injustice in our law enforcement system.”3
That was a long time ago. Congressman Rush couldn’t have foreseen that after tackling the sentencing disparity before the 2010 midterms with the Fair Sentencing Act Chicago’s gangs would still be shooting children and other innocents.
The Fair Sentencing bill was hailed by Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott because:
The legislation will reduce the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine in Federal law from 100-to-1 down to 18-to-1.4
18-1 isn’t good enough anymore, at least not in California, where the issue has strayed from the crack vs. powder controversy by adding to the list of forgivable offenses. The state is asking voters whether they will step up to the plate for prison inmates by minimizing sentences for crimes including grand theft, forgery, and fraud. Ballot propositions often have catchy titles that have little to do with the intent and Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, is no exception. How a safe anything bill can release up to 10,000 prisoners5 is hard to say, but states having budget problems are eager to reduce their burden and the budget savings bandwagon can justify just about anything.
Is this about race or budgets?
Are we broke, racist, or broke and racist? Racism is a scary charge that stifles argument. While gang violence continues, Democrats on the Over-Criminalization Task Force fret over locking up criminals of color:
The Over-Criminalization Task Force finally focuses today on what is the most critical failing of our nation’s criminal justice system: the continuing prevalence of racism as evidenced by a federal charging and sentencing regime that clearly discriminates against people of color.6
Government tends to be a one-size-fits all sort of endeavor. Scrutinizing each case is expensive and one of the big benefits of reducing sentences is supposed to be saving money. From a partisan perspective there are still dubious benefits to encouraging crime. Releasing felons from prison sends a strong message that Democrats are in the corner of the unfairly treated. An added and equally suspicious benefit is that the more problems we have roaming the streets, the more we can spend on social programs and liberal safety nets.
Is making drug possession less of a crime when it helps fund violence in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago a good idea? It might provide an economic boost to the underground economy as the fear of buying crack cocaine and other big-profit drugs vanishes. Ignoring the law sends the wrong message, which is bad public policy but good partisan politics for the left. Wouldn’t the whole issue be simpler if we just admitted the truth? The law isn’t unfair. It’s not racist, either. The law is partisan and protecting the people or rescuing budgets is not what this argument is about.