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Finishing what they started

Ross Douthat calls on conservatives who successfully took ownership of the "crime issue" in the '80s and '90s to also take responsibility for the mass imprisonment that's been the consequence of their approach:

Mass incarceration was a successful public-policy tourniquet. But now that we’ve stopped the bleeding, it can’t be a permanent solution.

This doesn’t require a return to the liberal excuse-making of the ’60s and ’70s. Nor does it require every governor to issue frequent pardons. (A capricious mercy doesn’t further the cause of justice.)

Instead, it requires a more sophisticated crime-fighting approach — an emphasis, for instance, on making sentences swifter and more certain, even as we make them shorter; a system of performance metrics for prisons and their administrators; a more stringent approach to probation and parole. (“When Brute Force Fails,” by the U.C.L.A. public policy professor Mark Kleiman, is the best handbook for would-be reformers.)

Above all, it requires conservatives to take ownership of prison reform, and correct the system they helped build. The Democrats still lack credibility on crime policy. Any successful reform requires the support of the law-and-order party.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 15, 2009; 9:12 AM ET
Categories:  Crime and punishment  
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I'll believe it when I see it. Ross has made out well with his brand of compassionate conservatism, but I suspect it represents maybe 10% of the Republican party.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | December 15, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

It's unlikely that this will get better. What they'll do is let people go early just because they can't afford to incarcerate them. This is already happening in Tennessee. My guess is that when Va Gov McDonnell takes over he'll cut the Department of Correction's budget as well and inmates will have to be released. Va Gov Kaine has already been cutting the DOC budget. Some older prisons have been closed.

I know of one Va prison that keeps a back log of unfilled vacancies. When their budget gets cut, they do away with those positions so that people aren't laid off immediately. So in essence, they're gaming the system.

State Republicans and Democrats both need to realize that they have to pay for putting people in prison one way or another. Perhaps they should stop making laws without some type of state OMB that can determine how much additional incarcerations will cost the taxpayers.

Posted by: just_watching | December 15, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

In some alternative universe where responsible Republicans exist, this might be desirable for some reason. Actually, I'll say he's not totally wrong about its desirability. We could have much better outcomes, more humane treatment, and sentences that make sense. However, that will not happen inside the next 50 years because Republicans will continue their simple stance of punish, punish, punish with their own special blend of inconsistent application.

Ross is mostly right about one thing, Democrats will continue to be seen as softer, even though it's not true, preventing them from independently implementing a better system. What a waste of an op-ed. When was the last time Republicans took responsibility for anything? Probably in the '80s and '90s when they made a mess of our prison system.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 15, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

douthat obviously knows nothing about the modern history of crime and imprisonment in america, so he makes up a lovely little story about liberal "excuse-making" and conservatives taking "ownership" of the issue.

i get why he lives in this fantasy world: he's not really well-read or well-informed, but he's fairly articulate and wants so desperately to think big thoughts.

but i don't get why ezra bothers to notice him: if our host wanted to write about crime issues, he could have simply written about (or turned the mike over to) mark kleiman, the non-conservative whom douthat (tellingly) needs to cite.

Posted by: howard16 | December 15, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Ross is a rarity: an idealistic Republican. He doesn't get that the Republican party has not been about solving problems since Reagan (and even then, they were solving them the wrong way -- as the very subject matter of his column highlights).

For most of the time that Ross has been on the planet, the Republicans' only tactic has been to win elections. When they were in power, their strategic objective was to consolidate power in any way possible so they might build a permanent majority. Now that they are out of power, they can only double down, because now they really, really need to win elections, just to get back to the majority.

Big ideas for Republican? It's like trying to explain a Ferris wheel to an Aborigine.

Posted by: Rick00 | December 15, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse


And what howard16 said: whether Douthat is a willing or unwilling dupe is unknown and perhaps unknowable, but a dupe he remains. Entertaining these wide-eyed musings is an insult to your readers.

State capitalism requires a police state; we want the former, so we quietly tolerate the latter.

Posted by: tps12 | December 15, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

While Douthat's article is as always trite, the comments are worth reading. Seems not a single among his commenters agrees with his hypocritical whitewash of Republican police state enthusiasm.

Posted by: carbonneutral | December 16, 2009 3:48 AM | Report abuse

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