Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
During a speech about criminal justice reform earlier this month at the annual American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference, anti-government crusader Grover Norquist compared criminals to fish caught in a net and exclaimed that he would like to see America revive the practice of beheading convicted killers.
"We gotta fight crime, we gotta have less crime, we have to be more secure in our persons and our property," he said. "I'm all in favor of chopping the heads off of people who commit murder and putting people in prison for a long, long time. There's no bleeding heart whatsoever. This is about punishing real criminals and making sure we don't just toss everybody in the net, the porpoises and the tuna, and treating them all the same."
The only countries that still practice decapitation are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Benin and the Republic of Congo, according to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
Norquist's full speech, available here, was actually about reforming mandatory minimum sentencing to ensure that states are not paying vast sums of money to keep nonviolent offenders locked up. Toward the beginning of his talk, Norquist insisted that no liberal can be taken seriously when they speak about reforming the criminal justice system, saying that conservatives must seize the mantle of prison sentencing reform.
"This is not moving to the center," Norquist said. "This is not being reasonable. This is not being moderate, or any of this nonsense. This is about doing what we think needs to get done to fight crime sensibly and in a way that's not overly offensive to taxpayers."
Despite his rhetoric, this is one area of growing agreement between liberals and conservatives. Liberals have long favored easing penalties for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug crimes. One of the highlights of this effort is The Fair Sentencing Act, passed by a majority Democratic Congress in 2010, which amended the Controlled Substances Act to reduce sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine to the same levels as powder cocaine. The Act also eliminated five-year mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders, but it was not applied retroactively and left thousands of nonviolent offenders to languish in prison.
Along those same lines, Holder announced in August that the Department of Justice will stop applying mandatory minimum sentences for other nonviolent drug offenders, citing the vast, "shameful" racial disparity in America's prison system. Research by advocacy group The Sentencing Project found that just one in 17 white males serve time in prison, but for black males the ratio is one in three.
Norquist, on the other hand, told the ALEC crowd that 2013's "do-nothing Congress" was somehow "an improvement" over the Congress that passed The Fair Sentencing Act, drawing a wave of laughter and applause. Meanwhile, the only major criminal justice reform ALEC has become known for is the notorious "Stand Your Ground," which permits people to use deadly force if they feel threatened.
"Stand Your Ground" laws, on the books in 22 states, have led to a 53 percent increase nationwide in claims of "justifiable homicide" since 2005, according to a study (PDF) by the National Urban League and Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Just 8 percent of black defendants who cite the law in their defense escape prison time, the study found, whereas 49 percent of white defendants who invoke "Stand Your Ground" are successful.