Michael Barone of The Examiner has an excellent column today discussing growing conservative support for smarter, more cost-effective punishment policies. He compares the slowly turning tide of conservative opinion on crime to the liberal backtracking on gun control:
Only a few lonely media outlets responded to the Aurora mall murders by calling for stricter gun control measures. President Obama and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made eloquent statements, as did Mitt Romney, but neither the two Democrats nor the Republican called for changes in gun laws.
Many conservatives and gun rights advocates took satisfaction from this, with some cause. Congressional Democrats have mostly given up the fight for gun control after observing the defeats of many colleagues in 1994 and of Al Gore in 2000. ...
But it is not only liberals who have changed their stance on an issue related to violence and crime. Conservatives in increasing numbers are moving away from their decades-long support for long prison terms for criminals. ...
[L]aws requiring mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in lengthy terms for many who are likely to be no threat to society. This has led conservatives like anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist to endorse the Families Against Mandatory Minimums organization.
It seems particularly unfair to many conservatives as well as to liberals that judges must sentence people possessing small amounts of marijuana to five-year terms when states with medical marijuana dispensaries have de facto legalized the substance.Mandatory minimums for drug crimes aren't the only ones conservatives and liberals alike should be concerned about: there are some pretty awful ones for offenses involving guns, too. One gun statute requires stacking up 5-, 7-, 10-, and 25-year mandatory punishments back-to-back for multiple convictions -- even if those convictions all came out of the same series of events, and even if no one is actually hurt. (Read about Weldon Angelos's 55-year prison term to see what we mean.) Florida's mandatory minimums have locked up for decades many who defend themselves and others with guns. (Read Orville Wollard's story as an example.) These laws strip judges of the power to sort out the cases of the truly dangerous from those where the mandatory sentence makes no sense whatsoever.
One solution is a "safety valve" -- an exception that gives judges the ability to choose a punishment other than the mandatory minimum when justice, common sense, and public safety demand it. (People can still go to prison, just not for so long.) Currently, there is no "safety valve" for federal gun offenses carrying mandatory minimums. There should be one, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should support it. A safety valve isn't a Republican or a Democratic answer -- it's just a good solution to one-size-fits-all sentences that, like every one-size-fits-all policy, can produce absurd results.