Just over half of the states have embarked on criminal-justice overhauls of varying scope over the past five years, with 19 of those efforts led by Republican governors or GOP legislatures and nine by Democratic governors or legislatures. Some of the most aggressive moves have come in states, many in the South, with incarceration rates well above the national average. […]The initiatives have drawn praise from groups that aren’t often allied with the GOP, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. The result is some unlikely bedfellows, with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council working alongside the ACLU.
The American prison system as it has operated in recent decades is a serious and ugly unresolved problem that by some measures is becoming untenable. According to famed legal scholar Bill Stuntz, we’re perhaps the most penal country in history, imprisoning a larger percentage of our population even than the Soviet Union under Stalin. Our system is expensive, discriminatory, often cruel, and profoundly socially disruptive. Though the rate of incarceration of blacks has declined recently, it is still disproportionate to the size of the overall black population, and because of this and the poor employment prospects for convicted felons, black communities have been decimated.If this reform push by the GOP is serious, it’s good news for two reasons. First, it will generate significant momentum towards reducing the iniquities of our current system. The policies that are being pursued by different states are too various to take a position on as a whole: some are likely sensible, others not. In general, we prefer reforms that focus on less draconian sentences for drug use and policies that seek to penalize lawbreakers without necessarily sticking them in prison.Second, it’s a sign that the GOP is still evolving in productive ways. After the last election, many triumphant Democrats suggested that the Republican Party was in utter shambles and might never fix itself. More and more, it seems these assessments were premature. In areas from health care to prison reform, the Right has clearly been doing some soul searching. By doing so it will not only strengthen its electoral prospects but our country as well. America relies on strong, competitive national parties animated by inspiring ideas.[Image of Prison Bars Courtesy of Shutterstock]