The “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice policy had a long run. Reagan pushed for mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses starting in the 80s, Giuliani “cleaned up the streets” through increased policing and arrests in the 90s, and by the 00s the federal prison population had increased nine times its original size. This conservative election strategy appealed to voters who no longer had to suffer the sight of drug addicts or feel threatened by petty thieves. Voters didn’t care about the long-term effects of imprisoning a significant portion of the poor working class so long as the undesirables were hidden and locked away. “Tough on crime” wasn’t so much about creating a better society as much as it was about social control.
Three decades later, legislators realized how destructive these policies were. Now, $6.8 billion dollars is being spent on corrections departments nationwide and the recidivism rate is still nearly 80%. Notably, conservatives have led the prison and sentencing reform movement, capitalizing on the failures of their own destructive policies. Newt Gingrich, who once introduced legislation that would impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of smuggling more than two ounces of marijuana into the U.S., now touts “conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending.” Other right-wingers, like Grover Norquist and Rand Paul, have promoted lenient sentencing reforms policies for the sake of reducing state and federal spending on corrections. In an appeal for moderate’s votes, these conservatives have extolled the benefits sentencing reform would have to the taxpayer.
It is clear that sentencing reform has not been informed by the plight of poor and adversely affected communities. Instead, criminal justice legislators have only been concerned with recouping the costs of their failed policies, mostly to the detriment of indigent. NPR recently ran a series “Guilty and Charged” that documented several examples of how court, public defender, room and board, probation and electronic monitoring fees are being unfairly charged to poor low-level offenders. Similarly, states are cracking down on infractions and using the revenue from fines to help fight budget deficits. Unfortunately, these policies are often targeted towards low-income communities.
The last decades of the Right’s criminal justice policies have never been about creating a more stable or safer environment, but about appealing to the sensibilities of white middle-class voters. Libertarians shouldn’t be afraid to move beyond this paradigm. Rather than championing the traditional taxpayer, libertarians should appeal to the base of poor, urban communities. Reform policies should focus on ending unnecessary penalties for victimless or petty crimes, period. Economists should determine how best to reverse the effects mass incarceration has had on the cycle of poverty. Let’s recognize that sentencing reform is more about communities outside of the libertarian bubble and be on the right side of history going forward.