A Serious Anti-Poverty Agenda Has to Include Criminal Justice Reform

Civil society vs. the law


For the last year or so, Rep. Paul Ryan has been on a "listening tour" of the country's low-income neighborhoods. Ryan's legion of liberal critics has accused the Wisconsin Republican of disingenuousness, claiming that there's no way he can square his stated interest in improving the lives of the poor with his commitment to cutting federal spending. But there is one rather obvious set of reforms that would let him do both, reforms that liberals in theory should support. In an interview with The Daily Beast last week, Ryan brought them up:

Hello, inner-city Seattle. I'm listening.
U.S. House of Representatives

I asked the representative from Janesville, Wisconsin, if he could reflect on a previously held ideological view that had changed over the course of his learning tour.

Without hesitation, Ryan delved into the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines…."I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there's an appreciation that that approach has some collateral damage—that that approach is missing in many ways…I think there is a new appreciation that we need to give judges more discretion in these areas."

Specifically, Ryan hailed the bipartisan work of Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to dramatically overhaul the federal sentencing guideline structure now in place. Dubbed the "Smarter Sentencing Act," the legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for certain drug offenses. It also would reduce crack cocaine penalties retroactive to 2010 and expand the discretion of federal judges to sentence defendants in certain cases to less time in jail than mandatory minimum guidelines permit.

Do-it-yourself criminal justice reform.
Warner Bros.

Those only scratch the surface of the necessary changes, but they're steps in the right direction, and it's good to see them get an endorsement from Ryan (whose record on civil liberties hasn't been very good in the past). If, as he says, Ryan's alternative to the traditional welfare state is to strengthen civil society, then he should be trying to root out the institutions that tear civil society apart. And the most corrosive of those are surely the prison-first crime policies that have given the U.S. the world's highest incarceration rates, ripping young people out of their families and communities and exiling them to an archipelago of cages. (See also: policies that confuse school discipline with crime control, policies that confuse cops with late-night social workers, etc.) 

Speaking of civil society and the law: Ryan's tour seems mostly to have taken him to civil society's more presentable faces—violence-free zones, church-based drug rehab programs, and so on. All well and good, but it's important to realize that a great deal of the community-based problem-solving and local mutual aid that's out there isn't likely to attract a high-profile visitor, because it operates in a legal grey zone—or, in some cases, outright breaks the law. Whether it's self-organized day care that violates licensing or zoning rules, organizations that ignore ordinances against feeding the homeless, or urban homesteaders with less-than-certain title to the abandoned buildings they're transforming into homes or the abandoned lots they're transforming into gardens, these efforts could stand a little legal relief. The laws that need to be cleared away for such projects to flourish aren't always imposed on the federal level, so a congressman's ability to help them may be limited. But if you want your poverty-fighting agenda to include all the valuable institutions of civil society, as opposed to the most camera-ready, these have to be part of the picture.