We conservatives have always been quick to condemn big, heavy-handed government when it comes to areas where the government has little business interfering with private lives. Perhaps it took the wake-up call of the Obama administration’s abuse of power even in areas of legitimate government activity to draw our attention to the fact that government power must be checked in all spheres, not just the ones that affect us or our businesses. However we got here, it is clear conservatives are now carrying the banner of civil liberties in the United States.
One case in point is legislation being advanced by Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania) that would require a conviction before state agencies can seize the property of a person accused of a crime. Believe it or not, under certain circumstances Virginia’s criminal asset forfeiture law currently allows the state to seize assets of people merely accused of a crime. Supporters of the law have generally been Republicans who are tough on crime, who point to the low likelihood under the law that legitimately-obtained property could be seized, and who argue that the program has funded valuable public safety programs.
However well-intentioned the asset forfeiture law may be (and regardless of whether the courts may hold it to be technically sufficient under the Constitution), punishment in advance of a conviction offends deeply ingrained notions of fairness and due process. Del. Cole is to be commended for bringing this legislation forward. Conservatives will never err when they side with the rights of the individual versus the heavy hand of the state.
Which leads us back to Ferguson, and the pent up frustration that it reveals. Make no mistake: I think Michael Brown was a hooligan whose own behavior likely invited his early demise (and thus believe the organized movement glomming on to this tragedy does itself a disservice by making Brown its poster boy). But, there is no denying the fact that blacks and members of America’s persistent, inter-generational underclass have deep-seated suspicions of law enforcement, and that this permanent mistrust has extremely dangerous implications for civil society and the health of our Republic.
How do we fix this problem? There is no easy solution, as it is going to take some serious work on both sides of the badge to heal rifts that go back decades. But one way to start is to look at those things we can do to build a consensus among all Americans that the government sometimes goes too far, and then take steps to fix it.
That’s the aim of a conference tomorrow hosted by the Charles Koch Institute in Richmond at the General Assembly building:
Criminal Justice in the Commonwealth: Is It Time for a New Approach to Sentencing?
Does it always pay for the Commonwealth to be “tough on crime”? While other states have moved toward new, more effective approaches to sentencing and rehabilitation, Virginia spends about $1 billion on corrections and has the 15th highest imprisonment rate in the nation.
There is a healthy dialogue to be had about whether every individual guilty of a non-violent crime should be incarcerated, especially in view of the often harsh collateral consequences of imprisonment.
How can Virginia expand opportunity for people caught up in the system? And is there a better, more cost-effective way for the Commonwealth to deal with crime? Please join us for a conversation on how incarceration impacts individual and societal well-being – and how smart criminal justice reform in Virginia can increase opportunity.
A. Barton Hinkle, Senior Editorial Writer and Columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Hon. Ken Cuccinelli, former Attorney General of Virginia
Craig M. DeRoche, President, Justice Fellowship
Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia
Sen. Frederick M. Quayle, former Member, Virginia Parole Board
Marc Schindler, Executive Director, Justice Policy Institute
Please click here to learn more about tomorrow’s conference.
What good does it do the Commonwealth and the nation to have hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders locked up for significant portions of their lives? What does that do to the persons incarcerated, or to the families they leave behind? Do the data suggest that lengthy prison sentences deter crime, or even lead to less crime by those who are eventually released? As recent headlines suggest, there are also important questions of how minimum sentencing laws and other “throw the book at them” policing can lead to longer-term mistrust and erosion of respect for the legitimate authority of the government in general, and the police in particular.
There are, quite obviously, important arguments on both sides of this issue. But as the chart above shows, we’re not doing something right, and it’s way past time for conservatives to fully join the conversation about how to fix it.