The phrase “criminal justice reform” is loaded with emotional impact. To some, the words translate to “soft on crime,” which has been a political mantra and damning epithet for more than 30 years. To others, it represents subjugation of the poor and minorities. Laws passed during the 1980s under the label of “reform” created vast sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine offenses, with crack crimes receiving sentences up to 100 times longer than those associated with powder cocaine crimes. It was not missed that crack addicts were largely economically bereft, disproportionately black, and living in the inner cities of America.
That sentiment will no doubt come to the fore as the U.S. House of Representatives plans to take up a legislative package this coming month that takes a balanced approach to criminal justice reform. Some fear these changes, believing we are on the cusp of a nationwide crime wave. In fact, on the national level, crime continues to go down. But more importantly, conservatives should welcome these reforms as long-overdue efforts to preserve fairness, protect taxpayers and reinstate the cherished values of federalism.
The statistics most often-cited as support for the belief that a crime wave is looming deal with a recent rise of violent crime in some of the nation’s biggest cities. Perhaps most alarmingly, Chicago suffered 2,988 shootings in 2015 and has seen 2,739 through Aug. 25, 2016. But it bears noting that even in Chicago, where fears about the violent crime wave certainly are legitimate, the crimes are concentrated in a few neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides. These are areas that have struggled with crime and poverty for generations. It would be inappropriate for Congress to view its current criminal-justice-reform package – which include bills that range from raising the standard of proof needed in civil asset forfeiture cases to mens rea reform to reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses – only through the myopic lens of violent crimes in a few major cities and in a few neighborhoods of those cities.