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The essence of limited government, as argued by many conservative limited government proponents, is that it shouldn’t have an unnecessary reach into the citizen’s private life.


In political philosophy, limited government is where governmental power is restricted by law, usually in a written constitution. It is a key concept in our democratic history. The Magna Carta and the United States Constitution represent important milestones in the limiting of governmental power. These arguments appear in taxation, property ownership, and gun rights rhetoric prominently. However, can these conservative principles also apply to criminal justice reform?


The argument’s crux is that once people have paid their dues in the criminal-justice system, we as a society ought to do our best to make sure they have a reasonable path back to integration with decent society.


It’s an argument that should resound with limited government proponents: The government’s reach into a person’s life shouldn’t continue long after they’ve served their time. If we truly think that the justice system should place an emphasis on actually correcting people who have gone off the right path (why do we call it “corrections”?), then we should be alert to what kinds of obstacles government may be deliberately or inadvertently placing in the path to continued rehabilitation and reform.


Employment options are hard to find because nobody wants to give a reformed convict a second chance. If regulatory creep, an occupational licensing incentive designed to impose legal requirements for entering a career path, keeps people from trying self-employment, then we may be stumbling unwittingly into keeping ex-convicts forever in poverty. This has a fundamental impact on their dependents, who did not participate, favor, promote, or otherwise desire these adverse effects.


“No man is an island,” whether father, daughter, friend or benefactor. Convicts chance at entering the workforce often affects the well-being of family members and communities at-large.


“The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ez 18:20).


The forward-looking reality is that these dependents had no choice about their benefactor’s poor decisions.


Our current prison population, an estimated 2.2 million Americans, of whom almost all will return to the broader population, garners a population larger than the entire population of Nebraska (1.9 million) and almost as large as Iowa (3.1 million). This does NOT account for an additional 4.6 million people on probation or parole.


Criminal convictions, more often than not, reflect mistakes and bad choices made by flawed human beings, perhaps you’ve met one of these? This is not to say there is truly sociopathic and dangerous individuals who need to be locked up far away and for a very long time. However, the majority of prisoners ought to be viewed as human beings whose flaws caught up with them.


Real justice may depend on the rest of us recognizing their humanity, helping the willing to reform and overcome those flaws, and doing what we can to make sure that a one-time mistake or bad choice doesn’t turn into a life sentence of punishment. If not for the reformer’s benefit, then at the very least, the dependents that rely on livable wages.


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