GOP Governors’ Push for Criminal Justice Reform Would Tackle Inner-City Issues Head-On

There is no doubt that law enforcement in some cities needs to examine their relationship with the communities they serve. But there is also no excuse for the paroxysm of violence, dressed up as a “protest,” that is gripping Baltimore.

As President Obama said, “I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching.”

But the president also makes clear that there is “no excuse” for the riots.

“It is not a protest. It is not a statement,” the president said. “It’s a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.”

And if the president would have stopped there it would have been a powerful statement – urging a period of national introspection and a clear rejection of reflexive violence. But he didn’t stop there. Instead, later in the week, during a press conference alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of all places, the president let loose his inner Rahm Emanuel and decided that this was just too good of a crisis to let go to waste.

If we are “serious” about solving this issue, the president said, “there’s a bunch of my agenda that would make a difference right now.”

And then came the decision to throw Republicans under the bus.

“Now, I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities,” Obama said, “and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference…”

But as Michelle Malkin pointed out in a withering response, Congress has already made massive investments, none of which has made a dent in the problem.

After all, how could we forget about the $104 billion we spent on public school districts, which we later learned had a “jobs effect . . . not statistically different from zero.” Or that $230 billion was set aside for infrastructure projects, with no discernible impact on inner-city areas. Or 2014’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which we can add to the list of 47 other federal job-training programs run by nine agencies that the Government Accountability Office recently said had “small, inconclusive” or “short-term impacts.” Or the $6 billion the government just spent on a “social innovation” fund to “improve our nation’s problem-solving infrastructure in low-income communities” when the real problems are a lack of education and jobs.

In reality, the federal government has done much more to advance the problem than it has to put forth solutions. As David A. Graham writes for the Atlantic:

Segregation and poverty in West Baltimore are rooted squarely in federal policy. Redlining of Baltimore neighborhoods, conducted under the auspices of the Federal Housing Authority, helped to ensure that black residents were segregated into black neighborhoods and built less equity. In 1995, a federal judge found that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had violated the Fair Housing Act, placing public housing only in poor black neighborhoods and thus concentrating and perpetuating a cycle of poverty. The government also failed to prevent Wells Fargo from a new form of redlining leading up to the housing bubble, in which black residents of the city were targeted for discriminatory lending.

Fortunately, Republican governors and Congressmen are beginning to look for meaningful ways to reverse the decline of our inner cities and the erosion of their relationship with law enforcement, most notably through criminal justice reform. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers—and in most cases Republican governors—who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.

Motivations for the push are many. Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime. Among the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state. And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail.

The movement also dovetails with the quest of some Republicans to soften the party’s edges and to plunge into new policy areas that affect the poor and the disadvantaged.

The reforms run the gamut from reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, increasing the use of rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders, expanding education resources in prisons, and investing accountability courts for things like drug us.

The changes make sense from a fiscal perspective. Years of soaring incarceration rates put serious strain on state budgets. Between 1970 and 2009 state prison populations swelled from 174,000 inmates to 1.4 million – a 700 percent increase. But more importantly, those inmates, many of whom could have been rehabilitated, became stuck in a cycle of joblessness, poverty and crime that plagues inner cities. Mass incarceration also has the impact of breaking up families, which often perpetuates juvenile delinquency and fosters future dependence on the state.

Now, criminal justice reform won’t solve all that ails America’s inner cities. Much more will need to be done—including opening up better educational opportunities through school choice—but at least Republicans are offering up proven ideas to stop endless, and all too often needless, cycle of incarceration. Of course, I’m under no illusion that President Obama will recognize the progress, but maybe he could if he did a little soul searching.