A CALL FOR A TRULY CONSERVATIVE APPROACH TO JUSTICE
By Gary Nelson
Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force. And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” – George Washington
I once heard a story about a couple who bought a large, aggressive dog with the intent of protecting their family from criminals. Tragically, however, the dog attacked one of their young children and nearly killed her, scarring her for life. Ironically, the very thing they hoped would protect them proved to be the source of violence far worse than they were ever likely to suffer at the hands of a criminal. The protector became the perpetrator, and their worst fears became reality.
The United States finds itself in a similar predicament today. Our vicious dog is a justice system which has become the most punitive in the free world. The “tough on crime” paradigm that has dominated our justice system for the past three decades has brought about the criminalization and incarceration of a radically disproportionate number of our citizens. We created it to ensure our safety, yet it now threatens greater societal harm than we ever imagined.
The perceived need to “crack down” on crime has resulted in severe punishments for crimes involving everything from assaults with firearms to personal use of drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences and “three-strikes” laws have drastically restricted judicial discretion, denying judges the ability to custom-fit sentences according to the circumstances of the offense or the needs of the community.
As a result, the United States of America imprisons a larger proportion of its population than any other civilized nation, including Cuba, China, & Iran. The number of Americans incarcerated has increased 400% since 1980, and it is estimated that over 30% of young adults now have criminal records.
The “Land of the Free” was rapidly becoming the “land of the imprisoned.” Recently, however, many have begun to understand that this trend has to change.
The implications for our nation’s future are profound. People with criminal records, including those only charged with misdemeanors, have an extremely difficult time finding work. The vast majority of employers will flatly refuse to hire anyone with a record. It is becoming increasingly clear that our over-dependence on punitive justice is creating a vast army of unemployable citizens destined to be dependent on government, or more crime, for their livelihoods.
As a veteran law enforcement officer and lifelong political conservative, I have come to believe that we conservatives have made a serious mistake in supporting the expansion of governmental power that is the inevitable consequence of “tough on crime” policies. We have embraced an approach to justice that has resulted in exponential increases in spending on corrections, courts, and police, as well as the criminalization and vocational incapacitation of 1 in 33 Americans. We have acquiesced to the erosion of individual liberty and the expansion of government power through over-regulation of nearly every aspect of our lives.
It is time for a return to a truly conservative, and American, model of justice. We must break our addiction to “crack-downs” and “get-tough” legislation, and move towards a restorative model of justice that provides real opportunities for the offender to return to productive citizenship.
It is for this reason I am pleased to be affiliated with Right On Crime, a campaign dedicated to “fighting crime, restoring victims, and protecting the taxpayer.” Endorsed by prominent conservatives like Grover Norquist, Marc Levin, and William Bennett, as well as eminent criminologists John DiIulio and George Kelling, Right On Crime is leading the way in returning our system of justice to a cost-effective, restorative direction. If you are concerned about the future of our nation and want to see “justice” once again be the focus of our legal system, I encourage you to visit RightOnCrime.org and get involved.