Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Truth About "Getting Tough on Crime"

by Kyle Michaelis
Wonders never cease. I'm not one to constantly assume the worst of those with a different party label or a different ideological perspective, but it's still a weird feeling when someone you normally disagree with completely surprises you by breaking with party orthodoxy and the status quo and making an impassioned plea for true reform totally out of the blue.

Such was the case yesterday when Nebraska's Attorney General, Jon Bruning, called for common sense and humanity in taking a good hard look at the politics of criminal sentencing. Let's let him do the talking (from today's Lincoln Journal-Star):
Sometimes the get-tough attitude on crime should be tempered by mercy, Attorney General Jon Bruning said during an unsuccessful attempt Wednesday to get an inmate’s life sentence reduced.

Bruning failed to persuade the other Pardons Board members — Secretary of State John Gale and Gov. Dave Heineman — to give a second chance to a man sentenced when he was 18 to life without parole for his role in a murder.

Bruning admitted this stand could jeopardize his own re-election bid. “We are continually trying to get ourselves re-elected by trying to be tougher than the next guy,” Bruning said. “And at some point, it’s got to end”....

With the 2-1 decision, the Pardons Board continued its 14-year record of denying requests to commute life sentences. But the decision sparked a passionate debate on being tough on crime.

Bruning pointed out that, historically, the state Pardons Board commuted life sentences several times a year until the early 1990s. And Bruning admitted his own get-tough record. “I’ve been so tough on crime, it makes me want to throw up sometimes,” he said.

But there is a time to consider mercy, he noted. Bruning said he was willing to commute this sentence “at my own political peril.”

Gale pointed out that state legislators and Congress have toughened crime laws. “And it’s costing the taxpayers more and more and more and more,” Bruning replied. “At some point it has to end.”

“It’s the voice of the people driving this issue of law and order,” Gale said.

“It’s the voice of politicians who are trying to get re-elected,” Bruning said.

“At some point we need to have some realism in this process,” said Bruning, pointing out that the current system lets some violent rapists off with just a few years in prison. And in this particular case, it sends a teenager who isn’t violent to prison for life, with taxpayers footing the bill.

All three men on the Pardons Board are seeking election or re-election. Gale said after the meeting that politics had nothing to do with his decision.

Bruning is so right it's not even funny. "Getting tough on crime" is an effective campaign slogan that has been a total disaster as public policy at every level of government. We have lost sight entirely of the concept of justice and the goal of rehabilitiation in a sickening display of political brinksmanship, fear-mongering, and pandering without any sense of reason or proportion.

This is not a question of the rights of criminals - it is a question of who we are as a people and as a nation.

I have disagreed immensely with Bruning in the past, particularly on his handling of the state's ridiculously expansive and discriminatory attempt at defining marriage in the state constitution. But, here, I feel like giving him a big fat kiss right on the lips (ironic, eh?).

I'm going to assume Bruning has no ulterior motive. I'm going to assume this is just a man speaking his mind...from his heart...on an issue that too few politicians have had the courage and integrity to touch. And, for today, I am proud to call him my Attorney General.

Wow, the rare instance of a politician doing the right thing (a Republican, nonetheless) truly does work to purge my system of its occasional build-up of cynicism. How refreshing.


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