Crime has long been a conservative issue. In the 1970s and 80s, conservatives answered the rising tide of crime by promising to “take back America’s streets” from thugs and gangsters. They offered clear solutions: more guards, more bars, and more prison beds. Put the fear of the law into would-be criminals, and lock the dangerous ones away.
Twenty years later, crime is down but corrections budgets are way up. About 2.3 million Americans are behind bars right now (think of them as “the other 1 percent”), costing their compatriots approximately 60 billion a year. Although sentences are often harsh, recidivism rates remain depressingly high. The war on crime has been successful, sort of, but it’s left us with a new set of problems.
Now conservatives are asking different questions. Can we maintain public safety on a more reasonable budget? Are there better ways to encourage reform, while still holding people accountable for their mistakes? Answering those questions in the affirmative, conservatives are spearheading another kind of criminal justice reform. Today, it isn’t just about getting “tough on crime.” It’s about getting right.
A Template for Criminal Justice Reform
Texas is the acknowledged leader in criminal justice reform. In recent years, Texas has been closing prisons and saving taxpayer money while watching crime rates continue to fall. Working through the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Right On Crime (ROC) is a national organization which has been helping promote similar reforms throughout the country. Many conservative states are following Texas’ lead, closing prisons and balancing state budgets.
Its signatories include numerous ranking conservatives, including Jeb Bush, Ken Cuccinelli, Asa Hutchinson, and Newt Gingrich. (Gingrich in particular has been an enthusiastic promoter.) Given its conservative bona fides, ROC’s policy statements may not be what people expect.
ROC favors more use of parole and probation as less-expensive alternatives to prison, especially for non-violent offenders (or re-offenders). It advocates giving judges more discretion to assign reasonable sentences, rather than holding them to strict minimum-sentencing laws. For juveniles in particular, incarceration should be used only when truly necessary, and courts should prefer community-based programs (such as vocational programs and group homes). ROC supports victim-offender mediation, and calls for voluntary drug courts along with more funding for drug treatment programs.
In short, today’s conservative reformers are aiming for less guards, bars, and prison beds. Incarceration is necessary in some instances, but it shouldn’t be our default punishment for every crime. Instead, we should use evidence-based methods to increase the effectiveness of our corrections spending. This can save taxpayers money, while opening opportunities for offenders who want to reform their lives.
What’s Changed Since 1994?
Fundamentally, conservatives haven’t abandoned any of their basic principles concerning crime. We value personal responsibility. Individuals should be held accountable for what they do, regardless of their childhood. Accountability is essential to justice, but also to moral improvement. Conservatives are rightly wary of the kind of “compassion” that involves treating adult human beings like machines liable to malfunction.
We value the safety of the innocent, and also the rights of victims. It’s not fair to build a justice system around the needs of the guilty. The perspective of the victim should be respected, and when possible victims should be given the opportunity to accept reparations and to participate in the corrections process.
Finally, conservatives value the integrity of law. A society in which laws are not respected will predictably struggle with criminality and disorder.
Right On Crime doesn’t call for compromise on any of these points. Rather, it examines ways to realize them more fully, while also recognizing the relevance of other conservative principles that were somewhat neglected in the reforms of the 1990s. It’s not conservative to sit idly by while our government squanders money and fails to answer for the outcomes of that spending. It’s not conservative to build institutions on a model that rewards failure instead of encouraging success. Finally, it isn’t conservative to punish mistakes in ways that further facilitate the offender’s moral decline.
Our justice system should encourage accountability, restitution, and reform, and it should make efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Now that crime has fallen to more manageable levels, we can focus more attention on minimizing the cost of public safety, both in dollars and in lost human potential.
Putting Prisons In Their Place
Incarceration does have some benefits. It gets dangerous people off the streets. Sometimes, it interrupts wildly unhealthy or violent life patterns and gives convicts an opportunity to change. At the same time, there are a number of significant drawbacks. It’s expensive. It erodes convicts’ connections to their families and communities, making it harder for them to establish healthy life patterns after their release. Ex-convicts are also less employable in light of their criminal past, and often find themselves trying to start new lives with no marketable skills and no employment history.
It isn’t easy to put inmates on the path to reform, and most prisons aren’t particularly motivated to try. From the standpoint of a prison warden, recidivism means job security. The system needs to be revamped to incentivize reform-oriented prisons, as measured in lower recidivism rates. A “successful” prison should be one that helps inmates conquer addictions and develop job skills, preparing them for successful re-integration into society. Private prisons may be a promising alternative to state or federally-run prisons, since they can be more easily incentivized to explore evidence-based methods for diminishing recidivism.
Of course, for many offenders the best solution is to shorten sentences, or not to incarcerate at all. Parole and probation can often be excellent alternatives to incarceration, particularly in light of new technologies and evidence-based methodologies. GPS tracking can enable more effective monitoring of parolees. Ignition interlock devices and SCRAM bracelets (which monitor alcohol levels by measuring sweat) can deter drunk driving without keeping convicts behind bars. Advances in risk assessment make it easier to determine which convicts are likely to re-offend, and which can safely be moved to parole or probation programs.
Particularly for convicts with substance-abuse issues, traditional parole systems have been fairly ineffective at encouraging reform. When offenders violate the terms of their parole, correctional officers have no real recourse except to recommend that the offender be re-incarcerated. This isn’t necessarily an effective deterrent for people with poor impulse control and long-term planning skills. Minor offenses (like missing an appointment) are allowed to slide, and problems escalate until the offender is eventually re-incarcerated.
Evidence has shown that for many offenders, sanctions for parole violation need not be harsh so long as they are swift and certain. Hawaii’s HOPE program pioneered a new and notably more successful approach by subjecting former addicts to randomized drug tests and immediately punishing non-compliance with brief jail stays. Recognizing the benefits, other states have been piloting similar programs to help drug offenders overcome their addiction and re-integrate into their communities.
Reforming our criminal-justice system should be a lengthy process. It takes time and experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t. But with the help of organizations like Right On Crime, the building blocks are in place. Building a better, more humane, and more efficient system now seems like a completely realistic goal, and it needn’t involve any sacrifice of public safety.
For many conservatives, prison reform may be the most exciting conservative issue they haven’t heard about. This isn’t necessarily surprising. For state governors, prison reform has been driven first and foremost by the bottom line. It hasn’t been a major electoral issue.
As Texas and other red states have demonstrated, these reforms can work. Liberals have long been lamenting the evils of mass incarceration; conservatives have done something about it. Now may be the time to bring prison reform out of the shadows. There’s plenty to talk about, including some enticing opportunities for bipartisanship.
Criminal justice reform offers us a chance to embrace core conservative values by balancing budgets and shrinking government. Because it has appeal across the political spectrum, it should be politically viable. It’s not often that liberals and conservatives agree on major cost-saving measures. Let’s seize the opportunity.
At the same time, these reforms could open some windows to impoverished communities that suffer from a dearth of responsible men. As marriage declines, middle America is starting to exhibit the same dysfunctional tendencies that have long plagued inner-city slums. That means we’re likely to see many more young offenders who stand at the crossroads between a possibly-productive life, and years of criminality and costly correctional control. Reforming even some of these could make an enormous difference to our country’s future.
There’s much to be gained by getting right on crime. There’s much to be lost if we can’t.