The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bill currently under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, has sparked passionate debate about the necessity and wisdom of sentencing reform. In two recent articles, one in The Weekly Standard and the other in National Review, conservative thought leaders took opposing positions on the issue. Both takes are worth considering.
Paul Mirengoff and William G. Otis, in their Weekly Standard article "The Sentencing Trap: Don’t Undo Our Greatest Policy Success," take a stance against the need for the current reform bill. They write:
What’s the biggest domestic public policy success of the last two generations? In our view, it’s the plummeting crime rate that began with a changed approach to crime in the Reagan years.
The new approach had two major components—proactive policing and mandatory minimum sentencing that set floors below which judges cannot go in sentencing serious offenders.
Mandatory minimums curbed the nearly unfettered discretion federal judges had previously exercised. That discretion produced systemic and shockingly lenient treatment of dangerous criminals; in the decades before Reagan, we invited, and we got, a national crime wave.
Reforms in policing and sentencing succeeded spectacularly. In less than a quarter-century, serious crime has fallen by half.
It’s impossible to say exactly how much of the decrease is attributable to better policing, how much to tougher sentencing, and how much to other factors. But even critics of mandatory minimum sentencing like John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation attribute 25 to 35 percent of the decline to mandatory sentencing standards. This translates into tens of thousands of murders prevented, along with millions of other crimes.
The proposed statute would shorten mandatory sentences for repeat drug offenders, end the federal “three strikes” mandatory life provision, and give federal judges greater license to sentence as they choose. The law would apply retroactively. Thousands of prisoners could petition to be released even though they haven’t completed their legally imposed sentences. [...]
The most direct and immediate beneficiaries of this legislation will be traffickers in heroin, methamphetamine, and other hard drugs. Over time, many thousands of equally dangerous felons will serve shorter sentences.
This will mean one thing—more crime faster. [...]
In their National Review article "Criminal-Justice Reform Is a Conservative Cause," Adam Brandon, Timothy Head, Grover Norquist, and Marc A. Levin argue in favor of the current reform bill. They write:
If you are a conservative and you are not behind major reforms to the criminal-justice system, you are terribly late to the party. But we wouldn’t blame you—Washington is finally catching up to years of successful reforms in red states.
Consider the conservative stalwarts behind the most recent federal legislation. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) has introduced a bill that expands the existing “safety valve” exception to some mandatory minimum sentences. The bill focuses on rehabilitation and treatment of offenders in the federal prison system so they will have the opportunity to become productive citizens when they reenter society. It would also enhance public safety while addressing the costs associated with incarceration. Those are sound, conservative principles. [...]
This is no rush to pass legislation but rather a drive to catch up to conservative states that have successfully reformed their prison systems and lowered their crime rates over the past decade.
Another criticism, leveled in an attempt to scare conservatives, is to point to the falling crime rates in the 1990s as proof that all of the policies of the past were effective. While it’s true that crime rates, including violent-crime rates, have dropped significantly since the 1990s and continued to fall as recently as 2014, the best research gives incarceration at most 25 percent of the credit for the crime drop we have enjoyed. Better policing, more private security, anti-theft technologies, and the decline of the crack-cocaine market are among the other important contributors. There is broad consensus that we have passed a point of diminishing returns with respect to incarceration. The more they are used, the less effective prison cells become. [...]