The Cover Given Deficit Hawks

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr is eyeing a promising effort at sentencing reform:

Indiana’s prison population has spiked in recent years, and state officials realized that they were going to have to spend about $1 billion in new prisons over the next 7 years to fit all the prisoners in the state prison system. In response, Governor Daniels announced a plan to study the State’s sentencing laws, together with two non-profit groups, the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, to see if the state’s criminal sentences had become too punitive. The groups published their report, which found that the drug laws had become too draconian and “one size fits all,” and that there wasn’t enough support for susbtance abuse treatment. The report recommended less punitive and more nuanced sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses as well as better substance abuse counseling as a way to lessen the prison population and avoid having to build new prisons. Last week, Daniels endorsed the report. Now the attention will turn to translating the report’s recommendations to statutory language, and Daniels will then have to get those recommendations through the state legislature.

I highly doubt any of this does anything for Daniels’ chances of getting the GOP nomination, and for that matter it’s still unclear if Daniels has any interest in running for President. But given how fears of seeming “soft on crime” so dominate criminal justice policy, it is a breath of fresh air to see a state Governor trying to make sure that sentences are appropriate, fair, and cost-justified rather than just high.

All sorts of dysfunctional policies have a major fiscal component. Examples: The War on Drugs, Iraq, ethanol subsidies, defined benefit public employee pensions, and the embargo against Cuba. Is it possible that reform might come about more easily if politicians who fear addressing these issues turn them into arguments about spending?

Surely that is part of Mitch Daniel's political calculus. It is far more helpful for a GOP aspirant to be seen as a rock solid deficit hawk than to guard against the unlikely possibility that his next race will turn on who is "soft-on-crime." Perhaps one day, the profligate spending necessary to finance the War On Drugs will damage office-seekers more than being attacked as "soft on drugs" for advocating an end to prohibition.