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May 19, 2010

Should sentencing fans be excited about voters "throwing the bums out" of DC?

The results of yesterday's various elections can and will be spun in many ways, though the essential anti-incumbent reality has to be part of any spin. And, given what I view as the extremely poor modern sentencing records of all the Congresses run by all the old guys inside the Beltway over the last 20+ years, my spin on yesterday's work of democracy is simply "Yea!".

Conventional wisdom in DC has long been that even a single legislative vote that seemed "soft on crime" in any way was a primary way (and perhaps the only way) that an incumbent could seriously risk re-election prospects. For this reason, for the last two decades, nearly everyone inside the Beltway (save Senator Jim Webb and a few rare others) has largely avoided any and all serious and frank discussion of the expensive failures of the drug war or of the modern social and economic consequences of mass incarceration.

But no longer can or should members of Congress consider their seats safe if they just avoid hard issues. Indeed, the optimist in me hopes that some inside DC see yesterday's results as a statement by voters that officials can and will get throw out for failing to tackle tough issues. (The cynic in me tells my optimist to keep dreaming, and the realist in me says a viable and enduring third party with a concern about these issues may be essential for there ever to be a real push for effective criminal justice reforms at the federal level.)

I would be even more excited about all these 2010 political realities if the tea party folks turned some of their anger and energy toward government waste and expense in the drug war and mass incarceration. But, I am hopeful that it is only a matter of time before big criminal justice government gets attacked by the tea party or others who are justifably skeptical about the ability for large government institutions to tackle problems effeciently and effectively.

May 19, 2010 at 09:43 AM | Permalink


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Your point is on the mark. The legalization community is filled with people who desire smaller government. Those with intellectual integration and critical thinking come to this point easily. Conservatives who want to enforce a version of the world they knew are slow to realize that this is a formula for big government.

It's interesting that "progressives" see liberty in a rather myopic way. They also pick and choose which human behavior needs to be controlled by government. Unfortunately, it seems that both sides of the spectrum can be influenced to abandon rational critical thinking if they can be made fearful.

An irrational "throw the bums out" attitude somehow seems like a hopeful attitude.

Posted by: beth | May 19, 2010 11:32:24 AM

Great insights, beth, though I might use the adjective "justifiable" rather than "irrational" for the modern "throw the bums out" attitude.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 19, 2010 4:12:09 PM

justifiable it is - also hopeful

Posted by: beth | May 19, 2010 4:29:16 PM

beth --

"It's interesting that 'progressives' see liberty in a rather myopic way. They also pick and choose which human behavior needs to be controlled by government."

An interesting insight. Most of the votes for the governemt's win in Gonzales v. Raich were provided by the Court's "progressives," and the opinion was written by the Number 1 "progressive," Justice Stevens. Raich was the most important government win in the "drug war" in years. It essentially preserved Congress's prerogative to criminalize drugs.

This site has a particular focus, but it is not the focus shared by most of the electorate, who show little interest in criminal law issues except when the crime rate is high. After years of mandatory minimums, guideline sentencing, and a revived death penalty, the crime rate is relatively low (certainly compared to what it had climbed to at the end of the anything-goes 1970's).

There are not many conservatives on this site, but I am one of them. So I think I am positioned to say at least a little about what conservatives mean when they talk about "big government." What they mean primarily is expensive government -- a government whose promises, in terms of the entitlement spending that drives the budget, now vastly outstip our ability to pay. It has finally dawned on our citizens that we are headed over the brink, and we are headed there because we have assumed, wrongly and for too long, that the government is responsible for people's lives rather than that people are responsible for THEIR OWN lives.

So far as I can see, the tea party movement is mostly disinterested in incarceration-related issues, except in the mundane sense of wanting to be safe. Prison and indeed the whole criminal justice system absorb a miniscule portion of the budget, and thus are the source of only a miniscule portion of the gargantuan debt that justifiably has people concerned. At this moment we are getting a preview of the death spiral of the welfare state, that being the widespread rioting in Greece. None of it has to do with criminal justice-related issues. It has to do with Greece's years of promising unaffordable public benefits. We have the same irresponsible dynamic going on here. You could cut prison sentences by 90% and it won't be the proverbial drop in the bucket.

Let there be no doubt about what's going on. It just rings hollow to be outraged about prison terms and the related costs while being oblivious to the astronomically greater entitlement costs that, as everyone knows, are what is really driving us to national bankruptcy. The cost argument is merely a make-weight for the long pre-existing view that we're too hard on criminals and should be more forgiving and less judgmental. I'm all in favor of discussing that point of view, but would prefer to do it openly, rather than under this we-need-to-save-money-on-prison smokescreen.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 20, 2010 9:41:15 AM

You're right about Gonzales vs Raich - progressives, conservatives, federalists etc do all get side tracked when individual justices "core values" muck up the thought process. Of course, we only know what the law means when the opinion tells us what it means, and then there is still plenty of room to continue the discussion.

I also see entitlements as a major fiscal danger, but that is only one side of the issue for me. Liberty involves freedom and responsibility. You are very clear about insisting on personal responsibility. I agree it is essential, however I believe that this personal responsibility is undermined when government takes the freedom of citizens so lightly. If freedom is the proverbial drop in the bucket from a fiscal point of view, I believe it is monumental in fostering personal responsibility. I know I have mixed the cost of incarceration with freedom and liberty, but that is the way I see it.

Posted by: beth | May 20, 2010 4:46:29 PM

No. The members of the criminal cult enterprise that is the lawyer profession make 99% of the policy decisions and suggest the remaining 1% to the elected figureheads.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 20, 2010 7:01:39 PM

Jesus, Bill. The financial hole we're in is the direct result of paying for a military empire we can no longer afford...and the interest on the debt for having paid for the empire all these decades.

Name a bigger more ruinous "entitlement" than that.

Taking care of poor people costs a fraction of what it costs to take care of obscenely wealthy warfare recipients.

Excited about throwing the bums out? No. Never again.

Throwing the bums out was what I thought I was helping to do when I donated money, canvassed precincts and blogged for Obama. He won, but guess what: new boss same as the old boss.

That's the evil Obama has wrought on the system. Folks like me will never again allow ourselves to feel excitement for a politician (or political movement) promising change we can believe in.

Posted by: John K | May 20, 2010 10:29:23 PM

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