Tuesday, June 19, 2012

with collapse headed their way, new readiness to start rethinking crime policy

dailybeast | Of all the problems in America today, none is both as obvious and as overlooked as the colossal human catastrophe that is our criminal-justice system. Prisons are overflowing. The government is broke. Communities are being destroyed. And yet the country’s cowed, uncreative politicians are still stuck in lock-’em-up mode: a stale ideology that demands stricter drug laws, tougher policing, and more incarceration, then tars every dissenter as “soft on crime.” As a result, the U.S. is now paying $200 billion a year, according to the late Harvard criminal-justice scholar William Stuntz, to arrest, try, and incarcerate nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, even though it’s home to only 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants. Crack use may have subsided, violent crime may have plummeted, and so-called superpredators may have gone the way of Bigfoot. But that hasn’t stopped us from separating millions of disproportionately poor, disproportionately black men from their families and communities and consigning them to a vicious cycle of stigmatization and recidivism instead.

By finding common ground on the unlikeliest of issues, could a Tea Party leader and a liberal academic actually help us overcome our criminal-justice impasse? One rustic Italian dinner does not, of course, a revolution make. But Kennedy is right: there is a “larger evolution going on right now.” It’s a transformation that is being fueled in part by penny-pinching, small-government conservatives like Meckler—conservatives who are realizing that it’s far too invasive, expensive, and destructive to continue incarcerating every wrongdoer for every infraction. And because conservative activists don’t have to tiptoe through the toxic crime debate like their office-seeking counterparts—who increasingly take their cues from the grassroots anyway—Kennedy & Co. are starting to believe that a groundswell among Meckler types could be the thing that finally gets criminal-justice reform off the ground.

As the son of an LAPD reserve policewoman turned Nevada County, Calif., corrections officer, Meckler was always primed to be skeptical of the GOP’s tough-on-crime talking points. “Having grown up around law-enforcement folks, I know a large number who are very conservative and still think the war on drugs has been an immense failure,” he says. “That’s not a new position they’ve come to. I’ve been hearing this literally my whole life.”

But it wasn’t until he’d spent some time in the Tea Party, with its obsessive focus on balanced budgets and smaller government, that Meckler realized how well his conservative principles jibed with criminal-justice reform. It was all there, he says: a ballooning tab that was “busting state budgets”; a top-down, one-size-fits-all style of policing and imprisonment that was “making it hard for [former criminals] to become productive members of society”; and communities that had “lost the ability to take care of themselves” because they were “occupied” by agents of the state. “On the right, we always talk about self-governance,” Meckler explains. “So I thought, why haven’t we been applying those ideas to the criminal-justice system?”