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Conservative Support for Sentencing Reform

In tremendously hopeful news, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which is extremely influential among Republicans in state legislatures, has endorsed model legislation to get rid of mandatory minimum prison sentences and give discretion back to judges.

The ALEC Board of Directors passed a version of the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in both houses of Congress to give judges discretion to reduce statutory minimum sentences that impose onerous sentences for a range of drug and other crimes, FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn told ThinkProgress. ALEC Legislative Director Cara Sullivan did not return an email inquiry from ThinkProgress. She did, however, tell the Daily Caller in an email response that the bill would help “ensure lengthy sentences and prison spaces are reserved for dangerous offenders, allowing states to focus their scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community.”

This language tracks a move in many states to implement “smart” criminal justice reform, motivated both by the onerous cost of bloated prisons and by recognition that over-criminalization does not benefit public safety. But the move is also a major reversal of course for ALEC, which previously supported mandatory minimum sentences that would apply regardless of whether the defendant was sentenced for possession, distribution, or cultivation. It also advocated for three-strikes laws that have since been toned down in most states, and developed a model “Truth in Sentencing” bill — passed into law in at least 25 states — that required every inmate to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, regardless of their rehabilitation or other factors.

According to Newburn, the organization has now altered its position and plans to eliminate mandatory minimum sentence from all or most of its model bills as part of a new Justice Performance Project, which appears aimed at reducing U.S. reliance on mass incarceration.

This is very encouraging. The conservative support for harsher and harsher sentences, and its general “tough on crime” stance has always resulted more from political expediency and historical contingency than from ideology. There are good conservative arguments against them and over the last few years we have begun to hear them articulated. I really hope this trend continues and I hope state legislatures start to pass laws to improve our criminal justice system. This is just a bare beginning, but it’s exactly what we need to get things done.

Comments

  1. hunter says

    I have to admit this surprises me. My own thought is that the mandatory sentencing laws were more a means to pander to the “punishment” (read “Old Testament”) advocates among conservatives than any real concern for law and order.

    My second thought is, where’s the money in this?

  2. Chiroptera says

    There are good conservative arguments against them and over the last few years we have begun to hear them articulated.

    Yeah, and they’ll just be called RINOs. The current Tea Party is pretty immune to arguments against their preferred beliefs, even when those arguments come from conservatives arguing from a conservative ideology.

  3. left0ver1under says

    This language tracks a move in many states to implement “smart” criminal justice reform,
    [...]
    But the move is also a major reversal of course for ALEC,

    So, does this make them a smart ALEC?

    Kidding aside, any sane person knew that “mandatory minimums” and “third strike” stupidity was going to cause more problems than it claimed to solve. And how unsurprising that those who advocated such “laws” were nearly all the same idiots who advocated “abstinence only sex education” which also cause more harm than the “good” is was supposed to do. Short term vote getting was put ahead of long term damage, and those responsible have divested themselves of responsibility or are no longer accountable.

    Changing the law isn’t enough. Retroactive resentencing is needed for tens of thousands who were given excessive sentences (e.g. someone who got 25 to life for marijuana possession or shoplifting). Get the harmless people out of prison both to reduce damage to them and reduce the cost to taxpayers.

  4. jamesramsey says

    I don’t think there’s a mystery.

    ALEC is bought and paid for (literally) by large corporate interests (e.g. the Koch brothers).

    Such interests are virulently anti-union.

    Prison guards are heavily unionized.

    The number of prison guards goes up and down with the number of prisoners. Longer prison terms also contribute to increased prison populations.

    Thus, reducing the number of prisoners reduces the number of prison guards which must be a good thing.

  5. keithb says

    The only reason ALEC would be involved in this is they realized that these laws also tied the hands of good-old-boy judges when they sentanced the like of Scooter Libby.

  6. says

    The only good thing that ALEC could do for this country is to emulate the “47 Samurai”; well, that, OR go to Guyana on a religious retreat.

  7. daved says

    ALEC is bought and paid for (literally) by large corporate interests (e.g. the Koch brothers).

    Such interests are virulently anti-union.

    Prison guards are heavily unionized.

    The number of prison guards goes up and down with the number of prisoners. Longer prison terms also contribute to increased prison populations.

    However, prisons are often privatized, which in the corporate world, is a good thing, and, in fact, private prison companies do lobby for longer sentences. So there’s some fragmentation here.

  8. beergoggles says

    So by having no mandatory minimum sentencing laws I’m guessing this will mean lighter sentences for white people? I’m guessing a relative of someone at ALEC got the same sentence as some brown person and they had a cow.

  9. Chiroptera says

    beergoggles, #10:

    I remember back in the ’90s when pants shiitting terror over black gangs was all the rage. Several states passed very draconian anti-gang laws. Well, the punchline is that some white upper middle class high school kids in a suburb somewhere in California went on a vandalism spree. They were caught, and the prosecutor decided that they could be charged with the anti-gang laws. Well, the parents were pretty much up in arms. Almost direct quote: this isn’t what the law was meant for.

  10. CaitieCat says

    It would be nice, if I were to ever go into the US again, to know that whatever kind soul has helpfully procured some herbal remedy might not be risking a life sentence for a few grams of green. And that the chance of my ending up in the same hellhole for actually using the stuff, or for a couple of molecules of some psychoactive clinging to my shoe bottom.

    Now, if they can only stop the War on (some) Drugs (used by some people), they’d really be stepping into the late 20th century. Whoo.

  11. CaitieCat says

    …er, “chance…has gone down.”

    God stole the last few words of my sentence. Or maybe Satan did. I only saw the back of his head.

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