Quin Hillyer: For criminal sentencing, a conservative alternative

Lock the door and throw away the key.

Or maybe not.

For decades, the let-’em-rot approach was how conservatives nationally and in Louisiana typically addressed issues of crime and punishment. But for less serious offenses, a growing conservative backlash has rallied support for more creative, constructive policies.

Louisiana legislators, drawing on the work of the conservative Pelican Institute in New Orleans and of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, joined that trend this month by introducing a series of eight bills promoting alternative sentencing and rehabilitation. None of these bills contradict a “tough on crime” stance against serious offenders. Nor do they abandon the “broken windows” theories made famous by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who proved that enforcing penalties against “minor” offenses helps keep petty crime from growing into something worse.

For violent repeat offenders, conservatives can still support tough policies such as the “three strikes, you’re out” (life sentence, no parole) law first introduced in Congress in late 1993 by Louisiana’s then-Rep. Robert Livingston. For vagrants and vandals, police can still arrest them and maintain standards.

The difference is, for the latter and for other lesser criminals, the new approaches would involve not less enforcement but a change in how their penalties are meted out. The new bills do not represent a woolly-headed feel-goodism. Instead, they evince a highly practical attitude aimed at controlling costs and keeping communities safer.

The Pelican Institute’s bills have been introduced by legislators of both parties. Moderate Democrat state Sen. J.P. Morrell, of New Orleans, and conservative Republican state Sen. Robert Adley, of Benton, for example, are co-sponsoring a measure to make a second offense for possession of small amounts of marijuana — not large-quantity possession or cultivation or distribution, but just ounces — a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Another bill, by conservative Democrat state Sen. Eric LaFleur, of Ville Platte, would allow parole (for good behavior) for repeat-offender convicts over 50 years of age if none of their convictions were for violent offenses. Another Adley bill would set up “veterans courts,” akin to existing special drug courts, to help offending but nonviolent veterans “interface” for probationary treatment with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

And state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, and state Rep. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, filed a bill to provide indemnification for employers who hire nonviolent, non-sex-offender ex-inmates against civil suits targeting such hiring practices. The obvious goal is to help promising ex-cons find productive jobs.

“I’m an absolute proponent of aggressive policing, such as responsible use of stop-and-frisk policies, and of putting violent criminals behind bars,” Pelican Institute President Kevin Kane told me. “But conservatives who want to limit the power of government should be concerned that such power is used responsibly with respect to imprisoning people.”

Alas, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. Yet only 37 percent of the inmates are violent offenders. The costs, human and fiscal, are substantial. An October joint report by Pelican, the Reason Foundation and Texas Public Policy Foundation showed Louisiana’s spending on prisons, even after adjusting for inflation, rose by $315 million (to $757 million total in 2011) in just 20 years. Yet many other states, including culturally conservative Texas and Georgia, have cut costs, crime and recidivism simultaneously by intelligent use of reforms in sentencing, parole and rehabilitation.

Conservative embrace of such reforms runs parallel, thematically, to a national effort led by the Heritage Foundation, on the right, in a strange-bedfellows alliance with the American Civil Liberties Union and other liberal groups to combat a problem called “overcriminalization.” Laws should be enforced, of course; but these groups wisely want to counteract an explosion of regulations that unnecessarily carry criminal penalties (rather than, for example, civil fines), thus choking our corrections systems while making criminals of thousands who unwittingly violate obscure administrative rules.

And just last week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill by conservative Republican John Cornyn, of Texas, a former Texas state Supreme Court justice, to help cut prison times by promoting successful prisoner rehabilitation programs.

Of course, bad guys should be penalized. Yet sometimes the use of the stick alone, without also offering proverbial carrots, only makes matters worse. If the ultimate goal isn’t punishment, but fewer crimes, then justice must work hand in hand with mercy.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com.