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Cries for sentencing reform laudable, sure, but also tardy

It is certainly a notable development that so many "lock them up as a first resort" sentencing hardliners in North Carolina and nationally are now singing an impassioned tune of criminal justice reform.

"[T]oo many people are behind bars that don't belong there" is the recently uttered mantra of a national group of law enforcement officials who are now changing their long-time pro-incarceration stance to a radically altered preference for sentencing alternatives.

That is good, of course, and a logical viewpoint amply supported by empirical evidence. The now-reformist clarion call for more logical and fundamentally fair penal policies from former proponents of draconian sentencing laws and outcomes must be accompanied, though, by a question regarding their newly found enthusiasm.

That is this: Why has their suddenly realized change in thinking so greatly lagged the persistent calls for change that have been forthcoming from criminal defense attorneys, many judges, some enlightened prosecutors and millions of people across the country for years?

It's not exactly a newly discovered epiphany that the so-called War on Crime and War on Drugs have fueled an exorbitantly pricey and inequitable justice system in the United States. In a recent New York Times article discussing the new reformist coalition of law enforcers, reference is made to the "tough laws and rigid judicial practices that have built a criminal justice system with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world."

"We need less incarceration, not more, to keep all Americans safe," the reform organization of police chiefs and prosecutors recently noted.

Isn't that precisely what much of the American public has been saying for some time now, with dedicated criminal defense attorneys working diligently to promote best-interest outcomes for even first-time and nonviolent offenders facing potentially draconian sentencing outcomes?

It is laudable, though somehow ironic, that the loudest chants now being heard for sentencing reform are coming from the very architects who ushered in and long supported things like mandatory minimum outcomes and zero-tolerance policies, even for crimes such as shoplifting and low-level drug infractions.

As the Times notes, many of the law enforcers now clamoring for change "have sustained careers based upon tough-on-crime strategies."

Their about-face now, while better late than never, is unquestionably tardy, and it also underscores the fact that their long-favored policies have been ineffectual and have resulted in overly harsh outcomes for high numbers of Americans.

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Law Office of Christopher A. Connelly
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