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Conservatives Backtrack on Long Prison Sentences

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Only a few lonely media outlets responded to the Aurora Mall murders by calling for stricter gun control measures. President Barack Obama and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made eloquent statements, as did Mitt Romney, but neither the two Democrats nor the Republican called for changes in gun laws.

Many conservatives and gun rights advocates took satisfaction from this, with some cause. Congressional Democrats have mostly given up the fight for gun control after observing the defeats of many colleagues in 1994 and of Al Gore in 2000.

A large majority of states have passed laws allowing qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons, and no such law has been repealed. And the Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does recognize a personal right to keep and bear arms.

But it is not only liberals who have changed their stance on an issue related to violence and crime. Conservatives in increasing numbers are moving away from their decades-long support for long prison terms for criminals.

Last year, Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese endorsed a "right on crime" initiative, calling for rehabilitation measures rather than prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.

They joined liberals who have been dismayed that America has just about the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in history.

There's little question that the vast increase in prison populations from the lows of the 1960s to the highs of recent decades have resulted in reduced crime. Violent offenders who are locked up can't attack people outside.

But it's also true that crime rates stayed high for a couple of decades after prison populations started their vast increases. Better police tactics, pioneered by Rudolph Giuliani and William Bratton in New York City and adapted by many others, played a major role.

Meanwhile, laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in lengthy terms for many who are likely to be no threat to society. This has led conservatives like anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist to endorse the Families Against Mandatory Minimums organization.

It seems particularly unfair to many conservatives as well as to liberals that judges must sentence people possessing small amounts of marijuana to five-year terms when states with medical marijuana dispensaries have de facto legalized the substance.

Some conservatives have taken such stands after serving in prison themselves, like the late Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, and Pat Nolan, a former Republican California legislator. Nolan points out that conservatives like Texas Gov. Rick Perry have turned down proposals to build new prisons and have stepped up drug treatment programs instead.

Conservative legislators in Congress and the states have also joined with black Democratic colleagues in attempts to reduce the shocking levels of rape in prison. And conservative as well as liberal prosecutors have stepped up DNA testing and have exonerated those who prove to have been wrongly convicted.

The most systematic expression of such views is found in the late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz's book "The Collapse of American Criminal Justice." Stuntz, a Republican and evangelical Christian beloved by his mostly liberal colleagues, argued that an excess of criminal statutes and undue power in the hands of prosecutors and police have resulted in an unfairly large number of people in prison.

Looking back in history, he pointed that immigrant groups in cities a century ago were allowed to police their own communities, while today in many heavily black areas police and prosecutors are accountable to largely white suburban electorates.

My own historical research indicates that rates of crime, violence and substance abuse among Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century were about as high as those rates for black Americans from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

But by the late 19th century, after a long generation, crime rates among the Irish fell sharply. Something similar seems to be happening among black Americans, so many of whom are descendants of the vast migration from the rural South to the big cities of the North in the mid-20th century.

In any case, there's a strong case to be made that stringent anti-crime measures that were, after some years, effective at reducing crime are no longer necessary now that violent crime rates have gone down.

So just as facts have prompted liberals to abandon stricter gun control, facts seem to be persuading conservatives to abandon tough anti-crime laws they once championed.

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