Tocqueville and America’s Prison System

Today we celebrate the 211th birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose seminal work Democracy in America stands out as one of the first classical liberal defenses of the American experience.

In an op-ed for The Federalist, Craig DeRoche explains how Tocqueville’s writings on the criminal justice system in America are still relevant to today’s controversies. In particular, Tocqueville noted that an increase in criminal convictions does not necessarily indicate an increase in crime. Also, he maintained that judicial discretion can play an important role in reforming overly draconian punishments.

DeRoche argues that these insights are still important in the 21st century. The federal prison population jumped from 25,000 in 1980 to over 194,000 as of July 2016. Mandatory minimums, the federalization of crime, and the removal of parole on the federal level have led to this explosive rise in the prison population.

Criminal justice reform is still a pressing issue for many Americans. In a joint survey of Virginians conducted by the Prison Fellowship and the Charles Koch Institute, “Thirty-six percent of respondents rate [criminal justice reform] as either their top issue or one of the top five issues most important to them,” and a vast majority of Virginians agree that judges should be given more sentencing discretion.

DeRoche concludes by writing that although worrying patterns in criminal justice emerge in our history, we retain American values of fairness and equality before the law. These values can lead us to a better criminal justice system.

A criminal justice system based on these values keeps us from repeating the mistakes of the past and moves us towards a more humane system that also keeps us safe.

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