Opinion

Wrong on crime

Right on Crime responds to Mr. Weeks’s article here.

To prison reformers, it probably seemed like an inspired strategy to recruit small-government partisans Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to the cause.

After all, it would be hard to find a better example of bloated government than a correctional system that spends an estimated $70 billion a year to reliably deliver no correctional results whatsoever.

So why not just reframe the whole debate over crime and punishment? Shrinking America’s massive prison system might not only force the use of humane alternatives to incarceration, it could save taxpayers money too, right?

That’s the basic premise behind the new, Texas-based initiative Right on Crime, which says it wants “less crime for less money.” It proposes to shrink prison populations by using alternatives to incarceration.

Signatories to the campaign’s statement of principles include a star-studded cast of conservatives, including not only Gingrich and Norquist, but Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and legendary conservative organizer Richard Viguerie.

“The Right on Crime Campaign represents a seismic shift in the legislative landscape,” wrote Gingrich and Prison Fellowship Vice-President Pat Nolan recently in the Washington Post, “And it opens the way for a common-sense left-right agreement on an issue that has kept the parties apart for decades.”

This dubious détente comes after a punishing thirty-year political arms race between Republicans and Democrats on crime. Democrats, tired of being flogged as “soft on crime” liberals, went blow for blow with Republicans, jacking up sentences for drug crimes and “habitual offenders.” As a result, the U.S. prison population doubled in the eighties and then nearly again in the nineties.

Soon everyone was broke, and there was no cover left for any elected official who dared to suggest sentencing offenders to the loving arms of faith-based groups like Prison Fellowship. Now it’s perestroika time.

And that is why Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Right on Crime supporters in a keynote address, that it might not be such a good idea anymore to “just sort of reflexively be against what the idiots are for.”

Before you applaud this heartwarming bipartisanship, consider that, when it comes to crime, both parties have been idiots. And when liberal and conservative idiots join arms, it’s usually bad news for the rest of us.

At its root, Right on Crime’s self-styled “conservative case for reform” is not right on crime so much as it’s amoral on crime. To reduce justice to a taxpayer issue says nothing about your values and priorities on justice, or even how you propose to fight crime. It simply says you want to pay less.

I began my career 25 years ago opposing new prisons, and I’m still a proponent of alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders. But for the past decade, I’ve worked in state legislatures across the U.S. to put people who hurt children into prison. Along the way, I’ve fought alongside and against politicians from both parties.

The idea that Right on Crime’s manifesto represents a departure from business as usual, as the group says, is absurd. Keeping a lid on corrections budgets has been business as usual in every state legislature for years.

Anyone who has tried to get meaningful state crime legislation passed knows the universal bipartisan compact between lawmakers of both parties. If the fiscal impact of a bill is significant—requiring, say, new prison beds—a formidable machinery is mobilized to stop it. When a bill is so popular it cannot be killed, it is watered down. This has given rise to a particularly fraudulent variety of crime bill, crafted to appear tough while doing very little at all.