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Michael Haugen | March 10, 2016
Note: This is the first in a series of three articles that counter comments made by Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke during a panel discussion on criminal justice reform at CPAC, where he suggested that reform efforts are built on “three big lies.” The second part can be found here, and the third part here.
On the main stage at CPAC last week, criminal justice reform received an examination by way of a panel discussion between David Clarke, a well-known sheriff from Wisconsin, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and Pat Nolan from the American Conservative Union Foundation.
While Cuccinelli and Nolan have long been advocates of reform in the states and nationally—both are signatories to Right on Crime—Clarke largely took a divergent view, not only casting the issue as a “Trojan horse,” but stating that the justifications given for reform are built on “three big lies.” Here, I’ll present the first of Sheriff Clarke’s criticisms of criminal justice reform, and provide evidence that fears of the process are without merit.
Truth #1: Current legislation does indeed target “low-level, non-violent offenders.”
Clarke led off his criticism of criminal justice reform efforts by suggesting that advocates are lying when they state that the reforms they espouse will only target low-level, non-violent offenders, saying that such individuals constitute a “small portion of the [state or federal] prison population,” and targeting them would only “put a dent” in that population.
Let’s focus our attention on the federal population, both for the sake of simplicity, and because most of the attention surrounding justice reform in the media is currently centered on the federal system. In 2014, just over fifty percent (107,288 out of 214,149 total) of federal offenders were being incarcerated for drug crimes; only 7.3% of all federal inmates are imprisoned with a crime of violence as their most serious offense. Of that fifty percent, 48.6% (52,142 of 107,288) were in the lowest criminal history category according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, having only zero or one criminal history point. With this number of points, such individuals are either first-time offenders, or have previously committed one low-level crime.
Fifty-two thousand, one-hundred and forty-two. Almost a full quarter of the federal prison population, who reside in the lowest possible criminal history category that exists. This is no “small,” or otherwise insignificant, portion of the federal population, as Sheriff Clarke suggests. These are relatively low-level offenders, and precisely the sort who are being targeted by legislation currently in Congress.
With regards to the wisdom of incarcerating such offenders for long periods, I’ve previously remarked:
“We…agree that keeping serious criminals in jail is an effective means of preserving public safety, but we must also recognize that the axiom of “putting people in jail and throwing away the key” does not apply to all offenders universally, and can actually be counterproductive. Incarcerating non-violent offenders in the same population as more dangerous criminals has the effect of inculcating the former into a culture of criminality common among the latter, making them more of a risk to public safety upon release than when they originally went in.”
I stand by this argument. Clarke’s assertion of a scarcity of low-level offenders notwithstanding, at the federal level, we continue to incarcerate tens of thousands of them, at great public expense—roughly $30,000 per offenders per year—in the same population as more violent criminals, who only tend to make the low-level offender more dangerous with the passage of time. Considering that the states have adopted policies proven to more effectively address such offenders—at lower cost, while maintaining public safety—for nigh on a decade, those suggesting that the status quo is tenable at the federal level are being willfully obtuse.