Crime is something that politicians have a fairly similar perception and platform on at any one time in history regardless of their political parties. For example, in the past it was necessary to appeal to a “tough on crime” perspective. Even those who identified as liberal and leaned left on social issues had to appeal to this iron fist outlook.
For example, President Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, with the full support of his wife, Hillary, and much of the Democratic legislature in 1994. At the time, the public was scared of the increase in crime rates and also felt the remnants of the “tough on crime” policies of Reagan. Since then, many of the politicians who supported and voted for the bill have distanced themselves from the policies it established and based on changing public sentiment, now support policies that are “smart on crime.”
This “smart on crime” perspective is now supported by politicians across the aisle in a political climate that is increasingly divided. Just today, a Republican Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, brought up this “smart on crime” perspective and voiced his support. Lee commonly referenced the case of an inmate who was convicted to 55 years in prison because of mandatory minimum sentencing. He was personally inspired to work on criminal law because of his experiences, and some politicians say that they have also identified with this reasoning behind their switch in position. Other conservative justifications for doing so include trying to lower spending on the criminal justice system, limiting the role of government, and keeping families intact.
Incarcerating people is expensive. Therefore, it is in the best interest of whoever is running the government, whatever their political leaning, to lower incarceration rates in order to also lower the cost to the government. By promoting these policies that allow people to leave prison earlier because of a lack of mandatory minimums, in addition to creating programs that work towards keeping people out of prison and reducing recidivism, they are able to reduce the expense that comes from funding prisons.
Another conservative rationale for “smart on crime” policies is the desire to limit the role of government. Even with government contracting of prisons, the government controls the entire lives of almost 1% of the population at any given time. By closing prisons and working to make sentences more equitable and fitting of the crime committed, and therefore not keeping people in prison as long, the government is decreasing its own scope in the lives of people.
A final motivation for shifting the perspective on crime is that it disrupts family structures and causes them to be permanently torn apart. With sentences that are so long, even once a person leaves prison, family bonds have been damaged and left broken for decades in some cases.
The main takeaway here is that more politicians are supporting “smart on crime” initiatives across levels of government for whatever reason, despite some still adamantly standing behind tough laws. This means that hopefully, it will be easier to see bipartisan legislation passed to seriously reform our criminal justice system in coming years.