Pat Robertson Is Right About Prison Reform

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You don't have to like the messenger, but facts are facts: Decreasing sentences for non-violent offenders would produce a more efficient justice system.

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700 Club

Pat Robertson's position on the wisdom of decriminalizing marijuana possession -- evidently he is in favor of it -- is no longer news. My former colleague Chris Good was writing about the television evangelist's surprising views on pot back in December 2010. But what does now seem new to Robertson's on-air repertoire is his pitch for legalizing marijuana as part of a bigger pitch for serious and substantial reforms to the nation's criminal justice systems.

Last Thursday, on his 700 Club show, Robertson devoted nearly nine minutes of the broadcast to commentary and a (really well produced) piece on the topic. Sure, there is still some of the familiar delusional thinking that has rightfully earned Robertson scorn over the years. For example, he now blames "liberals," who he says have "a punitive spirit," for sticking too many "criminal sanctions" on state and federal laws. Yikes!

But there is also deep truth in his emphasis on the fact that America, the land of the free, has more people locked away in its prisons and jails than any other country in the world. Robertson thinks that this is crazy, and unworthy of us as a nation, and he is exactly right. He's also right in identifying the notion that decriminalizing pot possession is one of the easiest ways to break the cycle of incarceration that ruins people -- and government budgets.

Here's the video from the March 1 show, courtesy of the folks at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which monitors such things as part of its mission to persuade a growing list of policy makers to legalize and regulate marijuana use: (You can skip to 20:40).


Before tossing to the piece, to the camera, Robertson said:

I just think it's shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of a controlled substance. I mean, the whole thing is crazy. We've said, "Well, we're conservatives, we're tough on crime." That's baloney. It's costing us billions and billions of dollars. Now think of California. California is spending more money on prisons than it spends on schools. I mean, there's something wrong about that equation, you know? There's something wrong.

Is there any part of that passage you disagree with? Remember, you don't have to like the messenger to appreciate the validity of his message. Add to this mess the growing influence and use of private prisons and you have the makings of a catastrophe. We have more prisons in America because we have more prisoners -- and we have more prisoners because of the economic incentives to fill up more prisons. It's one of the country's cruelest ongoing cycles.  

Next comes the piece, offered by reporter Paul Strand, which quotes Cornel West and Tavis Smiley among others, and which uses Texas as an example of a jurisdiction where Tea Party activists and progressives ("a coalition of left and right," Strand says) have worked to reduce prison populations. Predictably, the piece has a religious undertone but its main message is blunt and obvious: It's okay for conservatives to come out in favor of prison reform.  

And then back to Robertson. "Folks," he says on-camera, "we've got to do something about this. We've just got to change the laws. We cannot allow this to continue. It is sapping our vitality." And then there's more nonsense about the the problem of prison overpopulation being caused by "turning a bunch of liberals loose writing laws." Betcha that comes as a surprise to a great many conservatives on Capitol Hill and in statehouses all over the country.

Robertson will get criticized for blaming "liberals" for a problem they didn't create. But he'll hear no peep from me. If Robertson wants to preach this message to his millions of followers, and if those folks want to reach out to their lawmakers to push for meaningful changes to the nation's incarceration policies, I think that's something to encourage, not ridicule. It doesn't matter where the prison reform effort comes from; it only matters where it's headed.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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