In Land of Gridlock, Criminal-Justice Reform Offers Hope

04/14/2015 12:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015
Grover Norquist

In Washington, D.C., Republican congressional majorities and the Democrat president's veto create an evenly matched contest where each party can thwart the efforts of the other. On major issues that are matters of principle for right and left, Obama will veto any Republican congressional initiative and the Republican congress will refuse to enact any substantial Obama policy goal.

But there has emerged an area of possible consensus and cooperation in Washington and the 50 state capitals: criminal-justice reform.


For years, conservatives assumed the police, prosecutors, and wardens were operating in the public interest. Not something conservatives assume about other parts of government. Conservatives measured inputs: how many prisons built and filled? Not outputs: is crime falling?

Conservatives laugh at those who equate spending more on "education" with actually educating children. And yet they made that -- spending more equals progress -- assumption in judging the criminal-justice system.

Something has changed. The costs of mass incarceration have grown. The number of laws -- 4,000 at the federal level -- has grown to where the adage "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is laughable. Violent crime has trended downward such that the issue is not "too hot to handle."

One proposal moving forward is a "base-closing commission"-style law that would create a bipartisan commission to look at the 4,000 federal laws and suggest a number that duplicate state laws or should not exist at all and present them to congress. Unless the congress votes to reject the elimination of the, say, 200 or 300 laws that would be repealed. No one would vote to legalize carjacking: a federal crime already illegal in all 50 states under state law.

Some states and Washington are rethinking mandatory minimums that set long prison sentences for high-profile crimes. Some mandatory minimums appear driven by the desire of a politician to hold a press conference that shouts: "message: I care."

Technology now allows probation and parole officers to keep track of more convicted felons outside of expensive prison walls and allow fathers to live with their families and get to work every day and yet be "watched" for the period of their probation.

Restitution can sometimes replace incarceration. Drug courts may focus on those with drug dependency.

Laws that make it difficult or impossible for felons to work after a conviction should be examined to see if they are actually protecting citizens or simply creating barriers to reentry.

Prisons and courts should be more transparent to the public and judged not on how much is spent, but what is achieved.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.