Michael Gerson

Such policies, while essential, don't seem sufficiently urgent -- like recommending exercise and vitamins for a cerebral hemorrhage. So states are searching for better ways to sort their criminal population -- to distinguish between the predatory who require prison and the nonviolent who need something else. They are questioning mandatory minimums, experimenting with alternative sentencing and creating drug courts that give priority to treatment. There is less creativity, but equal need, on the reintegration of ex-prisoners -- providing transitional work programs, addressing addiction and mental health issues, removing unnecessary barriers to employment and housing. It is never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.

Preventing crime and reducing recidivism are among the most difficult social policy challenges. Gains come slowly and tend to be incremental. But such efforts are also the practical demonstration of a defining national principle: While human beings are capable of great horrors that merit justice, they do not become trash to be thrown away. Even the least sympathetic -- heroin addicts and jailed criminals and gang members -- remain part of the American community, the human community. And their very lack of sympathy tests our commitment to that ideal.

Obama's instinct on this issue is entirely correct -- and he should run with it. The president has exhausted the nation with grand reforms. Perhaps instead of the reconstitution of American society, he could focus on the amelioration of some specific needs. Other presidents have done the same, to their great credit. George H.W. Bush pushed for the Americans with Disabilities Act, making our laws and sidewalks more welcoming. Bill Clinton expanded the earned-income tax credit; George W. Bush fought global AIDS.

Guiding children away from crime and disrupting the cycle of recidivism fall into a similar category. When an important moral cause lacks a potent political constituency, only the president can unite the nation to address it. It is the power, and burden, of executive leadership.

America is the nation of the second chance. Or at least it should be.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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