Monday, September 21, 2009

A conservative case for reducing incarceration

Via Think Outside the Cage, I was pleased to discover this remarkable editorial from the right-leaning Colorado Springs Gazette analyzing partisan debates over corrections spending in that state ("The case for early prison release plan: We can't afford lock 'em up politics," Sept. 16). Here's how the op-ed opens:

Seldom do Republicans clamor for more state spending, and more government bureaucracy, in opposition to Democrats. That’s exactly what’s happening in Colorado, however, as leading Republicans blast Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter for his proposal to save money by shrinking the prison population.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry called the governor’s plan “Ill-conceived and reckless.” Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said the plan “will seriously compromise public safety.”

Colorado, like the rest of the country, has been on a foolish incarceration spending spree for years. Our state’s bloated prison bureaucracy has contributed to this country’s dubious distinction as having the largest prison population in the world — even larger than the prison population of China, which has more than four times the general population of the United States.

The editorial writers go on to make a strong, conservative case for reducing expenses on incarceration, particularly incarceration for drug-possession offenses.

Convicted felons are freedom-robbing scum who deserve no sympathy. Government should punish them and try to prevent them from causing more harm. The governor, the commission, and the police chiefs’ association aren’t trying to move our state in a soft-on-crime direction. Instead, they are trying to move Colorado in a direction that is realistic and fiscally responsible, given the condition of the economy. Prisoners are pure liability. They cost Coloradans 10 percent of their tax money and produce nothing of significant value. The less we spend on prisoners, the more we can spend on roads and bridges and higher education — assets that help facilitate the creation of wealth and therefore good jobs.

In the past 15 years, tough-on-crime politics have led to runaway spending on corrections. Just 15 years ago, Colorado prisons housed roughly 9,600 convicts. Today, the population is closing in on 25,000. While the prison population has more than doubled, the state’s general population has grown by only a third. As we spend 10 percent of the state’s budget on prisons, we spent only 4 percent in 1995. All this in an era that has been marked by dropping crime rates, a phenomenon related directly to an increase in the average age of the population.

Going forward, state leaders should consider all possibilities for minimizing Colorado’s prison population without endangering the public. Drug enforcement should be a low priority, in order to keep nonviolent dealers, smugglers and other habitual drug offenders from becoming expensive wards of the state. The Legislature should legalize marijuana. State leaders should familiarize themselves with all new and emerging GPS tracking gadgetry, which gives law enforcement officials the opportunity to know the exact location of convicts at all times. The state should reserve prison space for the long-term incarceration of the most violent offenders. ...

Never should our state become the least bit soft on crime. Never should state politicians busy themselves with compassion for criminals. But the days of spare-no-expense, lock-’em –up-and-throw-away-the-key politics are over. It’s an indulgence we can no longer afford.

These arguments pretty much exclusively draw on conservative ideology for reform proposals, right down to the writers' view of prison inmates as "freedom robbing scum." And yet, their proposals for de-incarceration jibe closely with suggestions from sources more closely associated with the left. IMO that's because any rational analysis of the economics of incarceration unavoidably leads to many of the same conclusions, no matter what point of view you subscribe to.

Texas' example has shown there's a lot of room for finding common ground between conservatives and liberals on criminal justice reform. But political actors must be able to set aside partisanship to focus on public safety and the wisest stewardship of taxpayers' money.


kaptinemo said...

One might add that a traditional (a.k.a. "Goldwater') conservative would never have argued in favor of trying to incarcerate our way out of a 'drug problem' that wasn't one - until supposedly well-meaning 'progressives' made it that way. And we've been paying a heavy price ever since...

HadEnough said...

"Convicted felons are freedom-robbing scum who deserve no sympathy." "Never should state politicians busy themselves with compassion for criminals." "Drug enforcement should be a low priority." These are just three of the statements in this article that sort of make you go "HUH???" This seems to me to be a very confused individual. I am not real sure if the author wants to help them or execute them. The first statement really offends at first but on reflection one can see how really sad it is.

Seems like this writer is one of those unfortunates who, when the word felon is uttered, can only see Charles Manson or the like. I know the article is about Colorado but the same situation exists in every state and is even worse at the federal level. He/she seems to have no real idea of what constitutes a felony and just how easy it is, especially given the proclivity of many self serving, less than honorable AUSA's to wrap anyone within reach in the "conspiracy" blanket, for the average citizen to find themselves so charged on the federal level.

All it takes is a twelve month sentence attached to the charge to constitute a felony and many take a plea deal because they know what the odds against them are when faced with the full might of the government. A 12 month probated sentence is still a felony and these "freedom robbing scum" are condemned to a lifetime of suffering the collateral consequences of the felony conviction. Certainly there are those who deserve and should be given no quarter, even some non-violent offenders. But, there are many first time non-violent offenders that are often convicted for simply dancing a little too close to the fire. They are not scum; they are ordinary people with families, just like the author, who made a serious mistake. I would almost be willing to lay odds that the author led the charge to give Mike Vick another chance yet is not willing to do the same for less high profile people.

That we are spending vast sums of tax dollars to incarcerate these individuals is ludicrous and the fact that legislation that would allow first time offenders the opportunity to seek a second chance is left to die in committee is even more so. Witness H.R. 1529 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2009.” If ex-offenders are not given a means of seeking and gaining meaningful employment most other so called relief programs are worthless.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

HadEnough, I think the author's point was that s/he doesn't care about "helping them" or benefiting offenders at all. They're making the case for less incarceration based on taxpayers' interests and public safety, focusing on the idea that incarcerating drug offenders takes up limited space needed for violent offenders. You can make a conservative case for that policy prescription without really having any overt sympathy or compassion for the offenders.

They're arguing that law abiding members of society should support such policies based on their own rational self interest, not do-gooderism.

HadEnough said...

Thanks Grits, I'll buy that but I still take offense to the "freedom robbing scum" characterization being applied to all felons without regard to the circumstances. Many deserve it but not all.

Anonymous said...

HadEnough, are you saying any federal offense punishable by 12 months or more is a felony, even if it's a misdemeanor? I heard this many years ago but didn't believe it.

HadEnough said...

Anon, no that's not what Im saying but as I understand, if the guidelines called for a sentence of12 months but for whatever reason, plea bargan,decision of the judge, etc. the final sentence is 12 months probation, then the felony still stands. Didn't know that there was such a thing as a federal misdemeanor these days.

Anonymous said...

Think minor infractions on federal property or military installations by a civilian; traffic violations, petty theft, trespassing, etc. I know some people tend to equate "federal offense" with felony, but it's just not true.

I had a federal law enforcement official tell me many years ago that conviction of any federal offense punishable by incarceration for 12 months or more could be used for enhancement purposes such as Felon in Possession of a Firearm.

I chalked it up as BS. Anyway, thanks for answering.