Imagine This -- Détente Between the Right and the Left On Prison Reform!


Can you imagine political conservatives advocating prison reform? It is hard to imagine if you are old enough to remember the infamous Willie Horton ads from the 1988 U.S.Presidential race. Willie Horton was a convicted murderer who did not return from furlough, and ultimately committed assault, armed robbery and rage. The campaign of George H.W. Bush seized on the case of Willie Horton in an effort to portray Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.

Two recent pieces – one in the New York Times and one in the Wall Street Journal – suggest that political conservatives are now prepared to re-think their view of prison-reform (although, not for violent offenders like Willie Horton). The first of these pieces ran on June 9, 2013 on the op-ed page, authored by Richard A. Biguerie, the chairman of It was entitled: “A Conservative Case for Prison Reform.” The editorial discussed the current prison system using a politically conservative cost-benefit analysis, and concluded that the entire criminal justice system leads to “excessive and unwise spending,” and “turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in…”

The second piece ran on the first page of the Wall Street Journal on June 21, 2013. The article, by Neil King Jr., was entitled: “As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus.” Beneath a photograph of a prison next to the article, the Journal wrote: “Many GOP governors and legislators are doing an about-face and trying to cut prison populations.” The author of the article, Mr. King, wrote: “Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime….”

For those of us who practice law in the area of criminal justice, this is a very welcome development. Led by organizations such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the NAACP, the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the recent trend is to re-examine the traditional tough on crime approach in favor of a more practical and compassionate view of criminal justice. In the past, this approach appeared doomed to failure as conservatives used their tough on crime philosophy as a political sledge hammer, putting liberals on the defensive on the issue of crime.

It has always been a mystery to me that political conservatives, who distrust government in general, were willing to trust government when it came to the criminal justice system. Similarly, liberals, who were prepared to trust government to cure many social ills, were highly skeptical of government’s fairness when it came to criminal justice. Liberals, therefore, argued that the United States unfairly increased the size of its prison population without deriving a corresponding social benefit.

One can only hope that conservatives like Mr. Viguerie will lead the way toward détente with liberals on issues of criminal justice. This will require a conciliatory stance by the left (not questioning the motives or the past wisdom of the right’s positions) and courage on the right (not running Willie Horton-type ads the next time that a parolee commits a crime).

The criminal justice system needs to be re-examined regularly. To the extent that conservatives and liberals can find common ground through this re-evaluation, that can only be a good thing.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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