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Coming Together On Crime

Publication Date: 
May 01, 2014
The National Law Journal
Ronald Brownstein

Director of Stanford Law's Three Strikes Project Michael Romano weighs in on the opportunities for sentencing reform provided by falling crime rates for The National Law Journal. 

It's no secret Left and Right can't agree on much these days. Red and blue states are hurtling in opposite directions on issues from taxes to gay marriage. In Washington, congressional Republicans and President Obama are so polarized that it's considered a triumph when they can keep the government open.


Yet one issue is conspicuously moving in the opposite direction: criminal-justice reform. From 2009 through 2013, more than 30 states passed laws reducing the penalties for drug crimes—a list that includes not only Democratic-leaning places such as Massachusetts and Hawaii but also reliably Republican states such as South Carolina and Oklahoma. Texas has instituted so many reforms to reduce its inmate population that in 2011, for the first time ever, it closed a prison.




What's changed the political equation on crime since then? The most important factor is the decline in the crime rate. After surging through the 1980s as the crack epidemic crested, the violent crime rate has fallen almost every year since 1993 and now stands at only about half of what it was then, according to FBI figures. (A separate Bureau of Justice Statistics crime survey shows the violent-crime rate ticking back up over the past two years but still down about two-thirds from its 1993 level.) "We have an incredible opportunity for change because crime is down," says Michael S. Romano, a lecturer at Stanford University Law School.


Simultaneously, shifts inside the GOP drained some of the partisan venom from these issues. During a panel discussion Romano moderated at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles this week, Van Jones, a community and Democratic activist working on these issues, pointed to three distinct strains of conservative leaders who are embracing reform: fiscal conservatives like Perry frustrated with the swelling price of incarceration (which will cost the states $40 billion this year); libertarians like Lee and Paul "concerned about excessive government power"; and religious conservatives, drawn to the possibility of redemption.