Back in the Spring of 2012 a brilliant young lady named Michelle Alexander asked me to respond to an opinion piece being run in the New York Times. I did offer a piece and you can read it here. I had read her book, “The New Jim Crow” and thought it was very well done and incredibly useful for people who need to come to know what is going on in America’s prisons and jails today.
At the time it seemed the conservative position on criminal justice reform was stuck in the rhetoric of the late sixties and early 1970’s. Sure, there was a lot of talk about criminal justice becoming too expensive and proactive fiscal conservatives were working to tighten the belts of the prison bureaucracy the same as they had done in welfare and Medicaid, but something important was missing.
I learned very quickly when I was speaker of the House in Michigan a decade ago that nothing changes based on math alone. Fiscal figuring is no match for values voting. In criminal justice many had started to discuss the staggering fiscal challenges and outright malfeasance in the justice system, but few focused on the values supposed in the foundation of our national schematic of courts, prosecutors and cops.
For years now I have tried to explain to my conservative friends the values underlying our support or opposition to elements of justice are worthy of placing front and center — whether this is easy or quite uncomfortable.
In March of 2012 I said it this way in the NY Times:
Our minority population is a reliably easier target for getting the numbers by which society measures law enforcement today.
Statistically, trolling for low-level law breakers has distracted the public from demanding justice where it is most needed.
I meant it when I said it, and it is true still today. In our country we still focus most of our resources on the lower level crimes that are generally non-violent. Further, our funding system still rewards arrests and convictions instead of increased public safety and less recidivism (when a criminal returns to crime).
The point I am trying to make is our values are out of line. It is not a Constitutional value to use taxpayer money to outmatch and overwhelm the poor. In fact, our Constitution prohibits it — as do most states, but the practice continues. As a conservative, I don’t like the idea of incentives being placed in government growth (convictions and inmates) as opposed to increased public safety. As a Christian, it troubles me most that the value of proportionate and restorative justice are swept aside for angry sound bites, unjustified retributive sentences and the absence of victim voices in the court rooms.
I chose the picture for this blog post because it seems we have collectively taken the values metaphorically found in our nation’s Flag and wrapped them up in knots. Thankfully, this is becoming clear to an increasing number of politicians on the right and left. I am thankful today to be working for Justice Fellowship and being one of those who gets to labor in the work of reforming the American Criminal Justice System.
This year the President has said that we need to look anew at the criminal justice system and the collateral consequences and costs it places on our culture, particularly in our nation’s urban core. If this is a genuine offer that welcomes a values-based discussion on reform, it will be something every American can rally around.