I have never forgotten a conversation I had with Washington Post legend Bob Woodward when I was an aspiring young journalist. He told me that one of the ways he grabbed the attention of readers was to hit them with what he called an “Oh, wow!” statistic.
Well, here are a few such statistics with respect to America’s criminal justice system:
- The U.S. accounts for a mere 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but also accounts for a staggering 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.
- The federal criminal code has multiplied from 3,000 offenses in the early 1980s to 4,000 by 2000, and more than 4,500 today.
- Non-violent offenders make up 90 percent of the federal prison population. And of those non-violent offenders, more than 10 percent are serving sentences of life without parole.
- The U.S. prison system costs the taxpaying public more than $75 billion a year, a sum that eclipses the gross domestic product of more than 125 countries.
That brings me to President Obama’s rather remarkable meet-up this week with 16 Democratic and Republican lawmakers to talk collaboration on “meaningful criminal justice reform” legislation this year.
Such a conversation would have been unthinkable not so long ago, as the GOP positioned itself as the party of law and order while portraying Dems as soft on crime.
Indeed, Republicans gave us mandatory minimum sentencing (which cracked down on drug-related crimes), three-strikes laws (which targeted so-called “career criminals”) and prison litigation reform (which aimed to curb lawsuit abuse by inmates).
By ratcheting up punishment for the non-law-abiding, such laws almost certainly have contributed to the reduction in the nation’s crime rate over the past two decades.
Yet, an increasing number of Republicans are troubled by the evolution of the nation’s criminal justice system:
The overcriminalization of the U.S. Code, which used to be reserved for such offenses as treason, murder, bank robbery, theft and counterfeiting, as noted by Heritage Foundation’s John Malcolm and Paul Larkin.
The mass incarceration of millions of Americans, most of whom are serving time for non-violent, non-serious crimes.
And the tens of billions of tax dollars that go to warehousing prisoners that could be used far more productively.
That’s why Republicans – including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and John Cornyn of Texas – actually are leading the way on criminal justice reform.
They are informed by such conservative think tanks as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has done much to reform the Lone Star State’s prison system, and which launched Right on Crime, a national initiative to reform criminal justice throughout the fair land.
Right on Crime has laid out the “conservative case” for criminal justice reform and the principles on which such reform should be based:
That the criminal justice system should be held “accountable for its results in protecting the public, lowering crime rates, reducing reoffending, collecting restitution and conserving taxpayers’ money.”
That it also should work “to reform amenable offenders who will return to society through harnessing the power of families, charities, faith-based groups and communities.”
The national signatories to Right on Crime’s “statement of principle” include conservative notables such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Ed Meese and former Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson.
All of those men have previously proved themselves to be law-and-order Republicans. That gives them credibility when they say that the nation’s criminal justice system is broken.
They have not suddenly gone soft on crime. They simply believe the time has come for criminal justice reform not only in the state capitals, but in the nation’s capital.