Earlier this week the New York Times published a cheering article about the criminal justice system, observing--forty or fifty years late--that what's conventionally considered the "left" position on crime is indistinguishable from the "right."
The headline was: "Right and Left Join Forces on Criminal Justice," but the article itself was an updating of the old joke about law school, where the dean tells the assembled first year students, "Look to the right of you. Look to the left. In three years, there won't be any left left."
Norman L. Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is quoted as saying: "The left and the right have bent to the point where they are now in agreement on many issues. In the area of criminal justice, the whole idea of less government, less intrusion, less regulation has taken hold."
But since when has less government, less intrusion and less regulation been a liberal mantra? Especially when the particular intrusion and regulation we're talking about has to do with protecting the vulnerable from exploitation or harm at the hands of the powerful.
Reimer was saying that his organization pursues a right-wing agenda. It's tremendously cheering, a real sign of progress in our society, that defense lawyers are beginning to feel comfortable coming out of their political closet, even if reporter Adam Liptak didn't seem to quite understand what he was hearing.
The article is also among the most nauseating I've ever read about the criminal justice system. It is illustrated with a photo of Ed Meese, who as President Reagan's closest policy adviser did as much as anyone to inaugurate the modern era of mass incarceration. Check out this graph--it's easy to spot the moment Meese acquired power.
The federal Bureau of Prisons reports that "[f]rom 1980 to 1989, the [federal] inmate population more than doubled, from just over 24,000 to almost 58,000." Those were Meese's years. He helped put in place policies that have kept on giving, successfully increasing the federal prison population three and a half times just since 1989.
Meese and Reagan's influence extended far beyond the federal prisons under their direct control. Remember just say no? In 1980, there were 19,000 people in prison for drug offenses. In 2007, there were 253,300. (On the other hand, we've completely eradicated illegal drugs... well, okay, at least we've substantially reduced their use... well, okay, at least we've driven up the prices... well, okay, at least we've screwed up a lot of people's lives. Okay, then!)
This is the same Ed Meese who's now shocked, shocked and appalled to discover that the federal prisons are locking up lots of people?
The last three paragraphs of Liptak's Times story approach the real point of Meese's advocacy:
Some scholars are skeptical about conservatives’ timing and motives, noting that their voices are rising during a Democratic administration and amid demands for accountability for the economic crisis.
“The Justice Department now acts as a kind of counterweight to corporate power,” said Frank O. Bowman, a law professor at the University of Missouri. “On the other side is an alliance between two strands of conservative thinking, the libertarian point of view and the corporate wing of the Republican Party.”
Mr. Meese acknowledged that the current climate was not the ideal one for his point of view. “We picked by accident a time,” he said, “when it was not a very popular topic in light of corporate frauds.”
Who believes Ed Meese has ever "picked by accident a time" to take a public stand on anything? Meese's point is that it's one thing for Republicans to lock up people who, if they were to vote, would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. But it's something altogether different for Democrats to lock up people who not only vote Republican but put their money where their financial interests are.
Meese's remarks can be read as hinting at something a step or two beyond that. He seems almost to be saying that if wealthy people want to avoid being put in prison for their crimes, they need to do what it takes to get Republicans back in power. If that's what he is hinting at, there's a word for that.