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In last week’s newsletter I linked to several commentaries offering qualified praise for the sentencing reform bills that have recently been introduced in Congress. This week, in an address to a convention of police chiefs in Chicago, President Obama offered some praise of his own:

It’s also important for us to acknowledge that our prisons are crowded with not only hardcore violent offenders, but also some non-violent offenders serving very long sentences for drug crimes at taxpayer expense….

Just last week…the Senate voted to move forward on a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. And that bill would cut back on mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders. It would give prisoners time off their sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense. It would invest some of those savings in law enforcement so you’ve got more resources that you need. And there’s a similar bill in the House of Representatives. So this is not something I get to say very often: I am encouraged by what Congress is doing.

The President also talked about criminal justice reform more generally, and, in remarks that were clearly intended to cast doubt on the claim by FBI Director James Comey and others that a "Ferguson effect" has lead to a recent spike in violent crime, the President made the following suggestion:

We do have to stick with the facts. What we can’t do is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas….

I’m sure if you polled this room, people would have different takes on what happened in places like Ferguson and New York. And let’s face it, the media tends to focus on the sensational and the controversial, and folks on both sides who say stuff that’s not designed to bring people together but oftentimes makes the situation more polarized. And as a society we tend to lurch from shock to complacency on these issues. And I’m suggesting we have to resist that impulse….

So it’s important for us not to just pounce and jump on anything that happens and immediately just draw conclusions…. It’s on all of us to let investigations uncover facts; to make sure that stories of misconduct aren’t spread before we know the facts, and that they’re not the only stories that we share.

Given how the President has himself responded to various incidents over the past few years, this may strike some readers as shockingly hypocritical. However, a more charitable interpretation would be that he has seen the error of his ways and is offering a sort of muted apology. Either way, the point is well taken. We do need to try harder to base policy proposals on fact, and that admonition applies, not only to the problem of police misconduct, but to criminal justice reform in general, including the reform of federal sentencing laws. (Indeed, it applies to public policy across the board, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In that spirit, readers who are interested in the issue of sentencing reform may want to read this transcript of Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which she provides an abundance of facts to support her contrarian view of the phenomenon of "mass incarceration":

We are in the midst of a national movement for deincarceration and decriminalization. That movement rests on the following narrative: America’s criminal justice system, it is said, has become irrationally draconian, ushering in an era of so-called "mass incarceration." The driving force behind "mass incarceration," the story goes, is a misconceived war on drugs….

The most poisonous claim in the dominant narrative is that our criminal justice system is a product and a source of racial inequity. The drug war in particular is said to be infected by racial bias. "Mass incarceration" is allegedly destroying black communities by taking fathers away from their families and imposing crippling criminal records on released convicts. Finally, prison is condemned as a huge waste of resources.

Nothing in this dominant narrative is true….

Readers may also want to listen to this podcast of an interview with Franklin Zimring, professor of law at UC Berkeley and author of The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. Prof. Zimring provides an abundance of facts to support his also contrarian but very different view of the matter. He makes it clear that getting the facts is hard, and figuring out what the facts tell us about what works and what doesn’t work is even harder.

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