Horrific crimes, weakening of laws may renew law-and-order demands
Law and order is about to make a serious comeback, I predict, and I’m not talking “must-see TV.”
It’s been a while since societal concerns about crime and violence have ranked anywhere near top of mind for most Americans, either nationally or here in Colorado.
It’s that whole “Maslow’s theory of human needs” thing. When your stomach is fed and your streets are safe, you tend to occupy your mind with things other than the next meal and public safety.
But that’s all about to change in Colorado, I suspect.
After a series of horrific crimes in the last year — the Aurora theater shooting, the murder and dismemberment of Jessica Ridgeway and the shocking killing of Colorado’s corrections chief — crime is very much in our consciousness.
Fueling focus on the topic is the embarrassing muddle of incompetence, malfeasance and reckless stupidity that key policymakers and administrators are showing.
The state’s chief executive is, according to news accounts, hurtling toward a decision to commute the death sentence of Nathan Dunlap, the perpetrator of the infamous Chuck-E-Cheese mass killing — a man so thoroughly reformed that, while in prison, he got himself a tattoo of a smoking gun. Beneath Dunlap’s tattoo is this inscription: “By any means necessary.”
Just as worrisome, this week we learned that the state’s corrections, parole and judicial administration systems had released and/or paroled hundreds of prisoners sooner than their sentences required. All this malfeasance was uncovered after the discovery that the man who gunned down Colorado’s corrections director was inadvertently released from prison early.
Liberals in our Legislature, meantime, have taken to the cause célebre of trying to put the clamps on solitary confinement, even for convicts with a history of attacking prison guards. And Colorado is one of five states not to have implemented Jessica’s law.
Folks, this is goofball stuff. And it is a notable departure from the general governing consensus that has surrounded matters of crime and punishment for 20 years.
Indeed, for the better part of a generation, crime rates have plummeted nationally and in Colorado. That’s not by accident. An ad hoc political consensus, prominently subscribed to by everyone from Bill Clinton to Rudy Giuliani, has solidified around a “get tough” approach to crime and punishment. That approach is best summed up in a single word: more.
More cops. More jails. More and longer prison sentences.
In Colorado, this no-nonsense approach to law enforcement has been bipartisan boilerplate. Former Gov. Bill Owens was accused of never having met a prison he didn’t want to expand. Former Gov. Roy Romer was responsible for the most muscular sentencing laws in the state’s history.
After the summer of violence in 1993, Romer convened a special session of the Legislature, eventually signing aggressive minimum mandatory sentencing laws.
Other states enacted similarly tough minimum sentences. Thereafter, our prisons filled, and our streets were, by no coincidence, safer.
As The New York Times concisely explained in a 2011 story:
“The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.”
But rather than celebrating this great success story of American governance, here in Colorado, those in charge are doing their dead-level best to unravel it — in the words of Nathan Dunlap’s tattoo, “by any means necessary.”
Add it together — high-profile violence and a retreat from sensible law-and-order policies — and the writing on the wall becomes very clear. Law and order, crime and punishment and the safety of our homes and communities are about to take on renewed importance in the minds of regular people.
Not since Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush flayed liberals as “soft on crime” has there been any real broad-scale, fundamental disagreement between the mainstreams of either political party on the topic. That set the stage for Bill Clinton to move his party to the middle.
Someone oughta dust off that playbook fast, because the radical retreat of Colorado Democrats from this “get-tough” consensus is ripe for a shaming of its own.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.