Race should matter when it comes to crime and punishment, even for conservatives
When liberals bring up race within debates about criminal justice policy and practice, some conservatives are quick to cry foul. Yet while conservatives understandably resist government-induced economic equality for all, those who take issue with calls for racial equality under the law demonstrate a clear misapprehension of what conservatism truly means. Furthermore, they miss an opportunity to create a more just, ordered, and free society.
At its roots, conservatism is meant to be the harbinger of liberty and legal equality. As noted by the great conservative thinker Russell Kirk, “Order and justice and freedom, [conservatives] believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the results of trial and reflection and sacrifice.” Thus, conservatives should hold dearly to these principles.
Whether or not critics of Manafort’s sentence or, similarly, those who suddenly support lower sentences are hypocrites is not the concern of this piece. Rather, it is that Morefield and other conservatives miss the point that racial injustice is exactly the sort of thing about which conservatives should be concerned.
The uncomfortable truth is that research does provide evidence of racial inequality within multiple facets of our justice system. For example, studies have found that black individuals were assessed higher bail amounts for similar crimes and that black men were given longer sentences than white men even when controlling for other influencing factors. The list of studies suggesting differential treatment goes on and on.
Even more disturbing, it’s not just adults who are being treated differently on account of their race. Children are also being judged and punished differently. Researchers have found that regardless of ideology, many people perceive black youth to be more culpable and adult than white youth. Research suggests that when youth are involved in the juvenile justice system and then return to the criminal justice system as adults, young black males are more likely to be imprisoned due to their juvenile record than whites. This differential treatment has the potential to radically alter the trajectory of a young person’s entire life.
Instead of decrying liberal condemnations of a criminal justice system that continues to produce disparate racial impacts, conservatives should be equally adamant champions of racial equality within criminal justice policy. True believers in our nation’s founding principles — namely, “liberty for all” and “equality under the law” — should not be comfortable with the status quo.
Furthermore, conservatives’ inherently suspicious view of government and belief in the “imperfectability” of humankind should make the broken nature of our justice system an easier pill to swallow. If other systems of government are ripe for abuse, corruption, or simple mission drift, is it not hypocritical to assume that our criminal justice system doesn’t suffer from the same inherent flaws? We think so.
Finally, conservatives believe in prudent policymaking — holding that the notions of today must be evaluated according to their probable outcomes. As such, conservatives should take a hard look at the outcomes of racial inequality within our justice system: the devaluation of an individual’s human dignity; the overuse and, in some cases, abuse of government intervention; and the disenfranchisement of minority communities — the same communities upon whom law enforcement often depend to help them solve cases and keep localities safe. These are hardly positive outcomes.
Instead of dismissing racial justice as a “far-left issue,” conservatives should be leading the charge to reform our federal, state and local criminal justice systems. If conservatives believe that “all men are created equal,” they should continue to put their principles into practice. For if they fail to do so, conservatism will continue to be unfortunately associated with ignorance of the blatant injustices faced by our fellow Americans, and it will fail to attract the support of those outside its traditional ranks.
As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said to his fellow conservatives, “If blacks hate or fear conservatives, nothing we say will be heard.”
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