Politics and Prison Reform

Interesting. The two most conservative candidates, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, may be the two more vocal advocates of prison reform.

Huckabee on 3-strikes legislation and addiction:

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is blunt when it comes to the three-strikes approach to justice: “It’s the dumbest piece of public-policy legislation in a long time. We don’t have a massive crime problem; we have a massive drug problem. And you don’t treat that by locking drug addicts up. We’re putting away people we’re mad at, instead of the people we’re afraid of.”

More on Huckabee:

…he campaigns on a compassionate approach to wrongdoers, especially those whose crimes are the result of drug or alcohol addiction. At Philly’s Finest, he condemned the “revenge-based corrections system,” sounding every bit the sort of squishy liberal that the Bill O’Reillys of the world long ago scared into the shadows. “We lock up a lot of people we are mad at rather than the ones we are really afraid of,” he said. “We incarcerate more people than anybody on earth.” As governor, Huckabee pushed for drug treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Brownback on the Second Chance Act:

The senator talks about how to achieve that goal by pointing to the program his audience knows well. IFI and other prerelease programs, says Brownback, can help inmates break their “bondage” to the past and prepare for a new life with people who can “pull you up, and not down.” He also discusses his Second Chance Act, which would authorize $40 million to help newly released prisoners with housing, drug treatment, counseling, job training, and education. Brownback says reducing the recidivism rate is not only about turning around the lives of those who have committed crimes but also about “breaking the generational curse . . . so that it doesn’t go to your kids and grandkids.”

If there’s bipartisan support for action, why is nothing happening? Conservative blogger Ross Douhat offers an explanation:

Prison reform is one of those impossible issues where all the incentives cut against changing the present system, because its injustices and cruelties are borne by a small percentage of the population, and its benefits are spread across the public as a whole.

Here’s interesting analysis of the ineffectiveness and the racial injustice of it all:

Consider the tortured racial history of the War on Drugs. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested for a drug offense in 1975 but four times as likely by 1989. Throughout the 1990s, drug-arrest rates remained at historically unprecedented levels. Yet according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse, drug use among adults fell from 20 percent in 1979 to 11 percent in 2000. A similar trend occurred among adolescents. In the age groups 12–17 and 18–25, use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin all peaked in the late 1970s and began a steady decline thereafter. Thus, a decline in drug use across the board had begun a decade before the draconian anti-drug efforts of the 1990s were initiated.

Of course, most drug arrests are for trafficking, not possession, so usage rates and arrest rates needn’t be expected to be identical. Still, we do well to bear in mind that the social problem of illicit drug use is endemic to our whole society. Significantly, throughout the period 1979–2000, white high-school seniors reported using drugs at a significantly higher rate than black high-school seniors. High drug-usage rates in white, middle-class American communities in the early 1980s accounts for the urgency many citizens felt to mount a national attack on the problem. But how successful has the effort been, and at what cost?

Think of the cost this way: to save middle-class kids from the threat of a drug epidemic that might not have even existed by the time that drug incarceration began its rapid increase in the 1980s, we criminalized underclass kids. Arrests went up, but drug prices have fallen sharply over the past 20 years—suggesting that the ratcheting up of enforcement has not made drugs harder to get on the street. The strategy clearly wasn’t keeping drugs away from those who sought them. Not only are prices down, but the data show that drug-related visits to emergency rooms also rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s.