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EDITORIAL

The healthy GOP debate on divisive issues of the day

Friday, March 29, 2013 - 12:01 am

The libertarian and conservative wings see things differently.

There has always been a healthy and spirited debate between the conservative and libertarian wings of the Republican Party. It seems more intense today merely because there are so many hot-button social issues to argue about – everything from abortion and same-sex marriage to immigration reform and gun control.

Consider just one issue – whether penalties for smoking marijuana should be lessened or done away with altogether.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is on the conservative side of the divide. He has asked the General Assembly to modify the proposed criminal sentencing reform plan because it isn’t tough enough on low-level drug offenders such as marijuana users and sellers. On the libertarian side is U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who asked in a recent television appearance, “Why ruin a young, nonviolent drug offender’s life by sending him to jail?”

Pence wants to send the message that Indiana is still tough on drug dealers. That’s a fine message, but it’s not clear this is the best place or the best way to send it. The purpose of the sentencing reform was to return proportionality to punishment and divert a greater number of less-serious criminals to alternative sentencing, both efforts aimed at the overall goal of reducing prison overcrowding. Since there is a strong possibility the misdemeanor and felony levels for marijuana crimes will now be increased, not decreased as originally planned, isn’t the “reform” more likely to add to the overcrowding?

We got into the overcrowding mess because legislators wanted to send that same tough-on-crime message, so they kept stiffening the penalties for crimes. But they have so far refused to vote the money for building more prisons. Are we going to get back into that same old pattern?

Paul hasn’t come out for legalization of pot, but does say there shouldn’t be lengthy periods of incarceration for using it: “Look, the last two presidents could conceivably been put in jail for their drug use … it could have ruined their lives. They got lucky.” (So did a certain former Indiana governor, which might explain Mitch Daniels’ more tolerant opinion of sentencing reform.)

Paul's attitude seems to be closer to where the country is. Many states have approved “medical marijuana,” and two have just approved it for strictly recreational use.

The GOP shouldn’t slavishly follow public opinion, of course; there’s no good served by a party without core values. But it can’t ignore that opinion, either. “Leading from behind” is as bad a political strategy as it is a foreign policy strategy.