- - Thursday, September 8, 2016


Nearly everyone — Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives — has concluded that the nation’s criminal justice system is not working. But nobody has figured out how to fix it, or even to summon the energy to try. The government locks up many who shouldn’t be in prison, does little to prepare them to re-enter society when they get out and everyone wonders why so many freed prisoners return to the Big House.

Pat Nolan, who was for years the director of the Prison Fellowship, organized by the late Chuck Colson, observes that society puts men and women in prison “just because we’re mad at them,” when incarceration should be reserved for the deadly and the dangerous, men and women who should be kept off the streets for everybody’s good. The current system evolved mostly because of a wave of violence that arrived with the anything-goes ‘60s, perhaps the most morally corrosive decade in the nation’s history, which was marked by the spread of illegal drugs. With liberalism run amok, the larger society could not bring itself to hold criminals responsible for their acts. The reaction, as it often does, created only more chaos.

Congress and the states enacted laws that have led to a prison system worthy of some of the worst of the totalitarian states. More than 4,500 felonies on the federal books can land both the guilty and the unsuspecting in prison. Many of these laws were enacted cavalierly, with little regard for whether the guilty actually should be locked up. House Speaker Paul Ryan suggests that a package of reform laws may be voted on before Congress adjourns next month, but even if the package gets through the House it probably won’t make it through the Senate, where legislation and blackstrap molasses race in plodding tandem.

The package making its way through the House is far from perfect. The Democrats think the root cause of everything is racism, which is why so many prisoners are there on drug-related convictions, and Republicans are convinced that releasing prisoners without individual screening would be a foolish mistake. Many Democrats prefer to release drug users, dealers and even the violent felons, and lock up more white-collar criminals, many of whom violate regulations and laws without intending to do so. The legislation before the House is a mish-mash of proposals; some are good and some are not so good. But it’s important to keep the discussion going.

While reform in Washington is, as usual, stalled in a blinding fog of hot air, several of the states are moving ahead with bipartisan reform packages that would make a difference. Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania among others have taken meaningful steps with bipartisan support to fix their prisons. Governors of several of these states have written op-eds for this newspaper and others to encourage what works.

What’s happening in the states is a reminder of the wisdom of the founders that the states could be “laboratories” to develop cures for what ails the republic, demonstrating that the officials who deal with problems first-hand are usually more willing to work together. In Washington, not so much.

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