Monday, May 18, 2015

Inch by Inch Progress

So as I've written several times recently, the momentum towards criminal justice reform and decarceration is still quite prevalent and trendy, even in some parts of the country we never expected to see inklings of reform.

Justice Reform in Deep South:

It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed.

Almost all of these deep-red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform. Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill. Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety.

The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.
The article notes that Alabama joins Georgia and South Carolina in having reformed its criminal sentencing schemes in the past few years.

Now, one wonders if the death penalty might not be next.

Conservative Support Aids Bid to Ban Death Penalty in Nebraska:
The Nebraska Legislature will decide in the next several weeks whether to do what no other conservative state has done in more than 40 years: Abolish the death penalty.

In the latest sign that vigorous support for capital punishment can no longer be taken for granted among Republicans, a coalition of Republican, Democratic and independent lawmakers has backed a bill that would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment. Its members cite reasons that range from fiscal and practical to ideological.

On Friday, the unicameral Legislature voted in favor of the bill, 30 to 16, after four hours of debate. A final vote is likely this week, and if the lawmakers approve the measure again, as is expected, it will go to Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Tea Party Republican and strong supporter of capital punishment. The governor has said he would veto the bill, setting up a potentially fierce campaign to override him.
While several states have banned the death penalty in the past decade, it would be extraordinary to see a deep red state like Nebraska to join those ranks (the only thing more extraordinary would be a deep south state). 

What you see is a lot of ideological gymnastics going on to try and move away from the doggedly pure, pro-death penalty ideology of partisan politics. 
The Republicans who support repeal say they are part of an emerging group that has changed positions on the death penalty, forming what they hope is a compelling conservative argument against it.Those Republicans have argued that the appeals process for inmates sentenced to death has left the state with unnecessary costs, money that should be spent elsewhere.

Senator Colby Coash, a conservative who is a sponsor of the bill, said he had come to believe that opposing capital punishment aligned with his values as a Republican and a Christian conservative.

“I’m a conservative guy — I’ve been a Republican my whole life,” he said in an interview. “A lot of my conservative colleagues have come to the conclusion that we’re there to root out inefficient government programs. Some people see this as a pro-life issue. Other people see it as a good-government issue. But the support that this bill is getting from conservative members is evidence that you can get justice through eliminating the death penalty, and you can get efficient government through eliminating the death penalty.”
The fact that the "liberal" New York Times is writing about it probably doesn't bode well for the movement generally, but it does represent a safer line of reasoning, for those in conservative states who have always had qualms about the death penalty, to embrace.

Last, a big announcement this morning from Washington regarding militarizing policing and the role of the federal government.

Obama to Limit Military-Style Equipment for Police Departments:
President Obama on Monday will ban the federal provision of some types of military-style equipment to local police departments and sharply restrict the availability of others, administration officials said.

The ban is part of Mr. Obama’s push to ease tensions between law enforcement and minority communities in reaction to the crises in Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and other cities.
A reaction, interestingly, that you didn't see yesterday in Waco, Tx after a shootout erupted between rival biker gangs, killing 9 people. There were no jackboots, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers or any of the usual spectacle that gets dragged out in inner city communities.

If you read the proposals, it does leave a question as to how far the ban goes. Some things are on the list, others aren't, but as usual in criminal justice, you take the good with the bad. 

Regardless, today seems more like a two steps forward, one back kind of day, rather than the usual one step up, two steps back.

UPDATE: The Nebraska did indeed vote to abolish the death penalty on May 20th, and many believe by a veto-proof majority. Huge development. 

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