“Our Debt to Society: The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform”

In remarks to the Heritage Foundation last week, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah made a sweeping moral and practical case for criminal justice reform, on the heels of new legislation in the Senate that seeks to reform federal mandatory sentencing and re-entry practices.

Aimed in particular at conservatives, he acknowledged that while there may still be those on the Right wary of reform, believing it to be a “progressive cause” and not a conservative one, Lee countered by stating that it’s conservative principles—e.g. “law and order built on the responsible use of government’s coercive powers,” “tight-knit communities,” “a vibrant civil society,” and “personal responsibility”—that have informed American jurisprudence in recent years, and that there are consequences for conservatives failing to lead now:

“Think about it: when there’s a major problem tearing at our economy and civil society—a problem that’s threatening our most vulnerable families and communities—conservatives don’t just shrug and expect a bunch of outdated laws and bloated government bureaucracies to take care of it. We know better.


“And we have seen what happens when conservatives surrender an issue entirely to the Left—as we did for many years on poverty, and health care, and education. We know who paid the price for our failure to lead: the same struggling families, fraying communities, and at-risk kids who will continue to suffer if we do so again on criminal justice.”

Criminal justice system reform, Lee goes on, doesn’t call on conservatives to compromise their principles, but rather, to “fight for them”:

“For conservatives, the question isn’t whether we punish those who break the law, but how we punish them—for how long, under what circumstances, and toward what end. Just as the government has the power to punish those who break the law, it has a corresponding duty to use its coercive powers responsibly—to sentence offenders on an individualized basis and no longer than necessary.”

This hints at one of the primary points of contention among some conservatives surrounding sentencing reform–a belief that reducing mandatory sentences will imperil two-decade’s worth of success in lowering crime rates across the country. As we argued last week, however, definite, long-term sentences that incarcerate lower-risk, non-violent offenders in the same population as more dangerous criminals can be counterproductive, in many cases making the former more of a risk to public safety upon release than when they originally went in.

Such lessons have caught on in many states—Texas among them—who have successfully eliminated most mandatory sentences without harming public safety, and have reduced crime rates while incarcerating fewer people. This hasn’t been done by dispensing with punishment, but rather by recognizing that alternatives to imprisonment for amenable offenders can yield better results at a lower cost—the very definition of intelligent, conservative-based justice reform.

Sen. Lee’s speech can be viewed in its entirety below:




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