Members of the Tea Party tend to disagree with progressives on just about everything. If the left is for chocolate ice cream, the right is for vanilla. If a Democrat believes Americans should drink more water, a Tea Party Republican will berate the very idea of water, and insist we all suck down three Super Mega Triple Gulps a day just to keep our blood sugar levels from dropping off.
Despite the seemingly obligatory contrary stance of Tea Party members — as well as Republicans afraid of Tea Party primary election tactics — to any idea coming from the left (or ideas appropriated by the left), these two political forces have actually found some common ground on the issue of prison reform. Well, kind of sort of. For those of you who are unaware, the United Sates incarcerates more people per capita, and in simple raw numbers (around 2.2 million souls), than any other nation on Earth. That’s right, we beat out the Russians, the Chinese, and although figures are hard to come by, most likely that bastion of personal freedom, North Korea. Woohoo! We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1! Wait, that was in bad taste.
For those of us who aren’t overly fond of the excessive criminalization of American life, mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent offenses, and the havoc a prison-based society wreaks on the nation as a whole, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.
A few Tea Party members, and other advocates on the right, have targeted the criminal justice and penitentiary systems for reform. Their reasons tend to differ from social liberals and appear to be more fiscally based, or rooted in a distrust of big government, rather than motivated by humanitarian or racial inequality considerations. Regardless of impetus, this translates into some good news, and some bad news for prison reformers.
Let’s start with the positive, shall we? Conservatives on the far right, along with liberals, have come together in some unusual partnerships, working together on legislation aimed at curbing the growth of the punitive state, and in some instances, actually reducing prison populations. The Obama administration has targeted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which deprive judges of discretion when it comes to sentencing and increase incarceration rates. For conservatives of a libertarian bent (Rand Paul), a reduced prison population means less strain on state and federal coffers. As a general rule, taxpayers spend around $31,000 per intimate per year, although costs vary widely, depending on the state in question and the level of security.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah (a stalwart supporter of the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act), are fighting together in an unlikely coalition, trying to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. Along with the Fair Sentencing Act, which became law in 2010 (reducing sentencing inequality between crack and powder cocaine arrests), the Smarter Sentencing Act’s purpose is to “focus limited federal resources on the most serious offenders.” In effect, this law, if passed (and that’s a big “if”) would give judges greater discretion when sentencing nonviolent drug offenders, thus potentially reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in prison. This, and other bipartisan efforts offer a glimpse of, dare I say it, cooperation across the aisles on an important fiscal and social issue affecting American society.
And now for the exceedingly partisan “fly” in the ointment…
In the great state of Oklahoma, the strange brew of being able to claim the number one slot for per capita female imprisonment on the planet (fourth for the fellas), combined with a package of viable prison reform laws known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and a heavy disdain for liberal politics, has led to a tragic collision of need, perception and policy.
The Associated Press, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World have reported that Governor Mary Fallin and her staff have shied away from enforcing these laws — despite the fact that they’re backed to some degree by the right — because of Barack Obama’s ardent support for prison reform, which has made the issue a toxic one for Oklahoman voters. (He’s not that popular there, in case you were wondering.) The prevailing wisdom seems to be that if it’s liberal, it stinks. “Tough on crime” for many people simply means more prisons and harsher sentences, not the opposite, no matter the costs to society, or what acts happen to be labeled as worthy of criminalization and rigid penalties.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, if fully enforced, could have potentially slashed Oklahoma’s skyrocketing prison population, cut debilitating prison costs, and provided education and targeted physical and mental health care for intimates. Yet politics trumped policy here. Fallin and her advisors believe they needed to disassociate themselves from “liberal”-appearing polices in order to survive upcoming primary elections with — yep, you guessed it — Tea Party challengers. I wonder if Sen. Mike Lee, up in Utah, is watching these events unfold with a sense of irony, or fear.
Understating the right’s seemingly schizophrenic approach to prison reform and actually doing something about it are two very different things. Perhaps liberal-minded folks could collectively walk away from the issue altogether, and let the right champion the cause “progressive free,” without the taint of liberalism. While this fantasyland scenario might work, I’m fairly certain it could never take root in the real world. The Tea Party would see through the ruse in an instant, and actors on the left would never trust the fate of American prisons to the right. Maybe, just maybe the Tea Party and staunch conservatives could overcome their loathing of all things liberal and continue to act in good faith and work with their less-than-conservative colleagues despite other ideological differences. It would make the country a better place to live in, with fewer people rotting behind bars. Nah, that makes far too much sense to work.