Over the summer, Americans were embroiled in fierce debates about NSA surveillance, Syria, and—of course—ObamaCare. Attorney General Eric Holder’s August 12th address on criminal justice reform, however, hardly made a blip on the national radar.
Observers who were surprised by this fundamentally misunderstand conservative views on criminal justice. Indeed, Holder himself quite possibly misunderstands conservative views on the subject. Three bits of conventional wisdom on this topic are completely wrong.
1. The conservative position on criminal justice is simply “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”Prominent conservatives like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Ed Meese are committed to reducing the incarceration of many nonviolent offenders while also enhancing public safety through effective community corrections and law enforcement. After Holder’s August policy address, Grover Norquist and Richard Viguerie essentially asked, “What took you so long?”
Increasingly, conservatives argue that prisons are necessary to incapacitate violent and career criminals but sometimes grow excessively large and costly like other government programs.
In 2010, Americans spent $80 billion on corrections, a 150% increase since 1992. Over the last thirty years, prisons are the second-fastest growing component of state budgets (behind Medicaid). When conservatives talk about cutting the size and scope of government power, prisons are not exempt.
Criminologists credit increased incarceration with only 25-33% of the national drop in crime rates over the last two decades. For non-violent offenders who are not career criminals, incarceration is often counterproductive.
Citing recidivism rates of around 66% in some states, Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley observed: “If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?”
2. “Red states” are resistant to criminal justice reform.In just the last three years, conservative legislatures and governors in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota enacted major reforms to avert future prison growth that redirect some nonviolent offenders to drug courts, electronic monitoring, and strong probation with swift and certain sanctions to promote compliance.
In 2012 and 2013, Georgia’s conservative legislature and Republican governor, Nathan Deal, passed perhaps the nation’s most sweeping adult and juvenile correctional reform bills. In 2011, an important prison reform bill was signed by John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio.
Texas, in particular, is a national reform model. A 2007 legislative estimate projected that over 17,000 new prison beds, at a cost of $2 billion, would be needed in Texas by 2012. State legislators instead expanded community-based options like probation, accountability courts, and proven treatment programs—for a fraction of the cost of prison expansion.
Since Texas shifted towards alternatives in 2007, crime has dropped 25%, and Texas correctional facilities are thousands of beds below capacity. Since 2013, Texas has actually authorized three prison closings.
The leader of these reforms in the Republican-dominated Texas House of Representatives was a conservative named Jerry Madden, and it was Governor Rick Perry who signed the budgets and related legislation into law.
3. Conservative prison reforms are just a response to deficits and will be reversed once budgets are flush again.Prison reform makes fiscal sense, especially in the wake of a recession that severely tightened state budgets, but this is not the only motivation behind conservative reform efforts.
Texas, for example, began its reforms when it enjoyed a budget surplus.At Sentencing Law and Policy, Doug Berman argued that:
Conservatives are principally concerned with public safety. Troubling recidivism statistics suggest that some low-level, nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated actually emerge from prison more dangerous than when they entered.
Conservatives want to ensure that non-violent offenders amenable to rehabilitation can resume their lives as law-abiding citizens, productive employees, and responsible parents.
They are particularly concerned about the effect of sentencing policies on families, the bedrock institution of society. Overwhelming social science evidence—and common sense—indicates that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to perform poorly in school, engage in juvenile crime, and be incarcerated themselves.
Addressing this problem means using prison less for some nonviolent offenders and using community supervision more—but tough supervision that requires offenders to provide restitution to their victims, get drug treatment, keep stable jobs, and support their families.
Vikrant P. Reddy is a senior policy adviser for the Right On Crime campaign in Austin, Texas.
it strikes me as neither accurate nor fair to call the quoted claims "myths" as much as prior realities that are slowly changing. Indeed, the main reason so many "red states" have been leading some of the modern reform movement lately is because of the extreme and dire budget consequences now evidence in the wake of prior "lock 'em up and throw away the key" laws and practices long embraced by conservatives in these red states.Grits can only knowledgeably speak to Texas' circumstances, but Doug's wrong about the Lone Star State. Indeed, it was Gov. Ann Richards and a Democratic controlled legislature that tripled the size of the prison system here in the '90s and jacked up penalties to fill them. Criminal-justice reform didn't begin in earnest in Texas until Republicans took over state government in 2003 for the first time since Reconstruction. Because of their deference to public employee unions, Dems were terrified to tackle criminal justice reform when they were in charge. Texas' de-incarceration efforts may not go as far as I'd like, but it's undeniable they only happened because of Republican leadership.
Look at California, where Gov. Jerry Brown recently vetoed modest sentencing reforms aimed at complying with a federal court order. Meanwhile, Arkansas passed sentencing reform last year that's actually being implemented. Doug's comments reflect conventional wisdom, it's true. But adherence to conventional wisdom instead of digging deeper to identify root causes is one of the reasons criminal justice reformers have been ineffectual in most states and at the federal level. Until reform strategists understand that liberty-minded, small-government conservatives are natural allies and begin to craft messages aimed at swaying them, efforts to confront mass incarceration IMO will continue to stall.