Don’t let urban unrest derail conservative criminal justice reform

After nearly a year of urban violence, anti-law enforcement demonstrations, and racial riots that shook America’s cities to their foundations, it would be easy for conservatives to abandon the project of reforming the nation’s criminal justice system. That would be a terrible mistake.

In the wake of a New York City grand jury’s failure to indict the NYPD officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner, a consensus opinion emerged on both the left and the right. Both ends of the political spectrum in the United States appeared to agree that it was appropriate to contemplate how to reform the system that determines whether police are deemed to have used inappropriate levels of force. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” was a myth and a lie propagated by agitators and a compliant media. “I can’t breathe,” was all too real.

It wasn’t merely the absurdity of Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s exoneration by a grand jury that sparked calls for reforms to the criminal justice system. Republicans have long understood that reforming sentencing for drug offenders is a necessary priority. After decades of waging a failed war on drugs, the right has largely come around to the notion that this policing strategy has only criminalized non-violent offenders and squandered billions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

Furthermore, few Americans are comfortable with the inordinately large prison population in the United States. The number of inmates in America declined slightly last year for the first time in decades, but America’s rates of incarceration and recidivism are absurd in comparison to other nations.

“More than 700 of every 100,000 Americans is behind bars. That compares with a rate of about 75 per 100,000 in Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. Those nations also have a much lower rate of recidivism, about half of that of the U.S.,” a recent Deseret News editorial read.

Some might assume that only presidential candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have championed criminal justice reform, but the GOP field is replete with candidates who acknowledge that turning a critical eye toward the justice system is a worthy enterprise.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published an important guide to understand where the slate of 2016 candidates stand criminal justice reform. Nearly every declared or undeclared candidate has embraced reforms to sentencing, parole and probation, and restrictions on judicial discretion. It is, however, easy to see how a recent spate of urban violence might lead the Republican primary electorate to embrace a “tough on crime” candidate. That would be a mistake.

He’s right. In Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice determined that systematic police abuses were substantiated. Baltimore, too, has been the subject of DOJ investigations into police misconduct. “The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 cases since 2011, and nearly all of the people who received payouts were cleared of criminal charges, according to the investigation published this week,” The Baltimore Sun reported in October of last year.

These are just two of many American cities that have been investigated for police misconduct. While there has been no widespread racial violence in cities like New Orleans and Cleveland, such tragedies may be forthcoming.

It would be unwise to dismiss Balko’s admonition. Just as it is foolish and irresponsible to blame anyone other than the violent for outbreaks of violence, it is unadvisable to pretend as though there is no criminal justice problem in America. The GOP will get no credit from minority voters for reforming the criminal justice system, but that is not why this project should be engaged.

As a matter of good policy and sound governance, conservatives should not abandon criminal justice reform ahead of 2016.