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Clarence Page: A swing to good sense in crime wars

BY CLARENCE PAGE Published: August 17, 2013
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Up against the wall, Mr. Mayor! Sometimes law enforcers need to be stopped, questioned and frisked, too.

I am referring, of course, to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The usually likable Mayor Mike unfortunately hasn't done enough in the eyes of federal Judge Shira Scheindlin to flush racial and ethnic profiling out of his city's stop-and-frisk police policies.

Her ruling came coincidentally on the same day that Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new policy to reduce the use of “draconian mandatory minimum sentences” against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Both moves illustrate a sea change in the nation's attitudes toward crime, the drug war and the outlandish cost in tax dollars and ruined lives of what both political sides criticize as “the prison-industrial complex.

Ironically, Holder, in a Democratic administration, is rolling back tough-sentencing policies that originally were pushed by Democratic lawmakers who didn't want to look soft on crime in President Ronald Reagan's 1980s.

But now? What a difference a generation, smarter community policing and a mid-1990s plunge in crime rates make.

Even in today's polarized political climate, the bipartisan coalition that escalated the war on crime is being emulated by a bipartisan coalition to replace costly mass incarceration with smarter alternative sentences.

“With nearly every state budget strained by the economic crisis,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist wrote in the conservative National Review, “it is critical that conservatives begin to stand up for criminal-justice policies that ensure the public's safety in a cost-effective manner.”

Norquist and other big-name conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former drug czar Bill Bennett, have signed on to the Texas-based Right on Crime, a leader in seeking cost-effective alternatives to mass incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

In a statement on behalf of Right on Crime, Marc Levin, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said, “It's good to see the Administration following the lead of conservative states such as Texas, South Carolina and Georgia that have proved it's possible to reduce crime while also reducing criminal justice spending.”

Stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimums are emblematic of the “tough-on-crime” drug war politics that began in the era of President Richard Nixon's 1960s and reached a fever pitch in Reagan's 1980s.

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