Is 'Tough On Crime' No Longer A Talking Point?

There's a growing bipartisan consensus that criminal justice policy needs to change, because of the costs and social consequences of keeping more than 2 million Americans behind bars. Host Michel Martin discusses the parties' platforms on criminal justice with the Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer and Marc Levin of the group Right On Crime.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's the first anniversary of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." That's the policy that used to bar gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. So in a few minutes we'll speak with one gay service member who also publishes an online magazine for gay service members to find out how life has changed for him and others over the course of the year. As I said, that's coming up.

But first, though, we want to take a closer look at one of the important issues we think voters might be considering as they think about the candidates in this fall's election. It's something we'll be doing every week between now and Election Day to get a better sense of just where the two major parties stand.

Last week we talked about education policy. Today we want to focus on criminal justice. More than two million Americans are currently behind bars. An even greater number are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and those numbers have skyrocketed over the past few decades. But our next guests say that criminal justice is actually one of the few areas where both major political parties are finding common ground.

Marc Maeur is executive director of the Sentencing Project. That's a non-partisan non-profit group that advocates to reduce this country's high incarceration rate, among other reforms. Also with us is Mark Levin. He's with the group Right on Crime. That's an organization of advocates and elected and former officials who are advancing a conservative case for changing the criminal justice system. I welcome you both.

MARC MAUER: Thanks. Good to be here.

MARK LEVIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Marc Mauer, I'm going to start with you. You broke down both the major party's criminal justice platforms and also the third party platforms, and you say that there's actually a surprising amount of agreement between them, particularly given that we see so much polarization around other issues. And I just wanted to ask why you think that is.

MAUER: Well, I think in recent years we've seen several things happening. Certainly in the last few years, you know, the fiscal crisis has really focused attention at the state level and the cost of corrections, the tradeoff with spending on higher education, so I think governors of both parties are looking at these issues very closely.

But even pre-dating that, I think over the last decade or so, both on issues of drug policy, people recognizing that someone with a substance abuse problem, if you put them in a prison cell for five years and don't do anything to treat them or prevent it in the first place, that's not very productive for any of us.

And also the issue of prison reentry - 95 percent of the people coming home from prison, are going home from prison, so whether one is a liberal or a conservative, we should be concerned with their ability to make it back in the community. And increasingly we're seeing people in both parties embrace that.

MARTIN: So are those the main areas of agreement? The whole question around high incarceration and recidivism that, you know, prison should be about - if someone is incarcerated, it should be about something other than punishment, that people have to have some tools when they get back out - are those the main areas?

MAUER: Exactly. You know, it's basically diverting low level drug offenders and trying to make a transition better back to the community for people.

MARTIN: Mark Levin, what about you? What is your answer to that question?

LEVIN: Well, I agree with everything he said. I think there's also - in addition to the fiscal motivations, there are also motivations of, look, I mean, every major religious faith believes in redemption and the opportunity for people to turn their lives around and not every offender is amenable to rehabilitation, but many are.

And so we have a number of both economic and social conservatives involved with Right on Crime who come at it from various different conservative perspectives. And also, frankly, the evidence. I mean there's been a mountain of research over the last few decades that has shown that different alternatives to prison work, whether it's problem-solving courts, electronic monitoring, treatment diversions for the mentally ill, we've had huge advances in risk assessment instruments that can better match offenders with the right programs.

So I think the growth in the scientific evidence has also contributed to a change in the political landscape.

MARTIN: But I think some - looking at this, the two party platforms, especially the major party platforms side by side, Mark Levin, might be surprised that, for example, the Republican Party platform is the one that says that persons jailed for whatever cause should be protected against cruel or degrading treatment by other inmates.

And I think that is something that people might be surprised to hear, given that there's been so much emphasis on getting tough on crime over the last couple of decades. And I just wonder, what do you think is kind of motivating that sensibility?

LEVIN: Well, I think that's kind of probably the concern I've seen across the spectrum, and rightfully so, about prison rape, about people being abused while they're incarcerated. You know, I think that what's really been significant is if you look out over the last few years, you've seen many states - Ohio, Georgia, South Carolina, of course Texas - bipartisan, almost unanimously approve major criminal justice reform that is consistent with a lot of the things that Marc Mauer talked about, of diverting low level drug offenders.

We found that a lot of states, because prisons have been sucking up all of the corrections budget, there were no places in a probation or a drug court, a treatment program, for offenders, so actually judges and prosecutors were sending low risk non-violent offenders to prison because simply the other things weren't being funded. So just correcting that has produced major gains.

So here in Texas we have now our lowest crime rate since 1973; at the same time our incarceration rate has gone down by about 10 percent. So there's still more work to be done, but the key thing is if you look at the Republican platform, for example, you see - compared versus the '08 Republican platform, you see the addition of some pretty strong language on diverting drug offenders, some really good language on reentry, and also some really good language on over-criminalization, which is this growth in the number of criminal laws that is also contributing to really an unnecessary growth in the criminal justice system.

MARTIN: Mark Levin started to answer this question, so Marc Mauer, I'm going to ask you to pick up the thread here. There was always this debate over whether the party platforms actually matter...

MAUER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...whether anybody actually reads them or do any officials take their lead from what's in the party platform, or is it just a sop to various interest groups to make them feel good? So I wanted to ask you your perspective on what Mark Levin just raised, which is, do you see signs that jurisdictions are implementing these kinds of changes?

MAUER: Well, yes. We certainly see this, and one thing that's sort of striking is the platforms in both parties, I think, really don't recognize this nearly to the extent that they should. In the last decade, New York and New Jersey have each reduced their prison population by about 20 percent. California is now under court order to reduce it by 30,000. Neither of the parties is really addressing the basic sentencing policies that have gotten us into this big mess that we see.

So the mandatory sentencing laws, the three strikes and you're out laws, you know, they're either silent on those issues or in some cases supportive of them. And so as encouraged as I am about some of these changes that we're seeing, I think if we were going to fundamentally address the problem, we need to think much broader than this.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're talking about the evolving politics of criminal justice. Our guests are the Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer, and Mark Levin from the group Right on Crime, that advances a conservative case for criminal justice reform.

So, Marc Mauer, you knew this question was coming. We talked about the areas of agreement. What do you see are the big areas that remain of disagreement between the two parties?

MAUER: Well, I think in some ways it's not so much. The Republican platform expresses firm support for mandatory sentencing for many people, eliminating parole for what they would say are serious violent offenders, but you know, at the same time the Democratic Party platform is silent on many of those issues and silence sort of seems like consent if that's the prevailing policy right now.

The Democratic platform has a little more language around reducing racial profiling, addressing racial inequalities in the system. So that we see some differences there but nothing of great substance that I can see.

MARTIN: Marc Mauer, we've been focusing on the two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, but you did check out the third party platforms, the Green Party and the Libertarian Parties, who are both very outspoken about changing the way drug crimes are prosecuted and processed in this country. I'm wondering whether you think that their advocacy around this issue has shifted the discussion, or what you think the driving force is there.

MAUER: Well, I think we've seen a shift in great significance on drug policy in particular. Yes, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party both support legalization of drugs, at least in some categories, or decriminalization, but I think more broadly than that, you know, the heyday of the war on drugs in the 1980s, we're well beyond that now.

I think there's a much broader recognition of the value of treatment and prevention. The whole drug court movement is a recognition by communities that we need options other than incarceration. So I think there's a real shift. And, you know, most Americans have someone in their family who's suffered from drug or alcohol abuse. It's an issue that touches all of us and people can relate to it.

The problem, again, though, is that while we've seen this change in consciousness, many of the policies in place - mandatory policies that apply to many drug offenses - legislators are still too fearful of touching them, and so it really thwarts the efforts to advance a greater approach to treatment orientation.

MARTIN: Mark Levin, a final question to you. I'm wondering why criminal justice has just not been that much discussed as a major issue in this campaign, particularly given how much of our country's resources are devoted to it. I mean, there are certain places - like for example, Chicago, which has been dealing with a terrible, if I may use the word, epidemic of violence among and directed at, you know, juveniles, I mean, some really heartbreaking stories.

But, other than that, it doesn't seem as though we're talking that much about it, and I wonder if you share my observation and why you think that is.

LEVIN: Oh, I do share your observation. I think one reason is crime has been going down for 18 years in a row, which is terrific. But I will tell you one thing, is if you look at the long-term unemployed - which there seems to be a lot of discussion about - I mean, it would be incredibly valuable to do a piece of research that said how many - what percentage of these long term unemployed have a criminal background.

I just heard, down in Texas, you know, we're having this fracking boom south of San Antonio. They said - I read an article. Half of the people being interviewed is truck drivers and other things. They're dismissed immediately because they've got, sometimes, just a misdemeanor. And so we've got to create more opportunities for people to be able to, once they've been rehabilitated, to clear their record.

We were able to get a bill passed here in Texas that allows ex-offenders to get provisional occupational licenses to go into various occupations, and we also need to provide legal immunity for employers that hire ex-offenders. So there's a huge number of people in this country who are affected by the criminal justice system. I think you don't see it as discussed much in the presidential campaign, largely, because, as I said, it is, rightfully, almost all the money we spend is at the state and local level.

But it needs to be on everybody's radar, not just because of the amount of money that the country spends on it, but also how it affects people's lives on an everyday basis.

MARTIN: Mark Levin is with the group Right on Crime. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Marc Mauer is executive director of the Sentencing Project. That's a nonpartisan group that advocates for a number of criminal justice reforms, including a reduced incarceration rate. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Marc and Mark, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LEVIN: Thanks for having us.

MAUER: Thank you.

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