Conservatives are leading on prison reform

Marc Levin Policy Director, Right on Crime
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Many Americans might be forgiven for thinking that, just as liberals often have a program for every problem, conservatives have a prison for every problem. However, conservative criminal justice policy today is charting a new course that is more consistent with the traditional conservative principles of limited government and personal responsibility. In conservative states like Texas, Georgia, and South Dakota, conservative policymakers have spearheaded statutory and budgetary reforms that prioritize prison space for violent and dangerous offenders while strengthening cost-effective alternatives that hold nonviolent offenders accountable.

Since 2005, when Texas began its reforms that expanded the use of proven alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, the crime rate in Texas has declined by 25 percent, reaching its lowest level since 1968. At the same, the state, once known for its burgeoning prison population, has seen its incarceration rate plummet.

Fortunately, crime and incarceration rates can be reduced simultaneously. Another example of this is New York, where the prison population has fallen by a quarter since 1999 at the same time crime has fallen to the lowest rate since the 1960s, thanks in part to innovative policing strategies in New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has already presided over the closure of more than half a dozen correctional facilities, alienated state employee unions earlier this month when he proposed closing a couple more, joining governors like Texas Governor Rick Perry and Florida Governor Rick Scott, who closed prisons in 2011.

Conservatives like Perry and Scott may be shutting the doors on prisons, but they are not turning their backs on conservative principles. Rather, conservative leaders are applying the same lens of accountability to corrections as to other areas of state budgets. They are recognizing that while prisons are indispensable for keeping violent and dangerous people off the streets, there are ways of punishing and rehabilitating many nonviolent offenders that are not so tough on taxpayers.

On February 5, conservative South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed legislation that emphasizes alternatives for nonviolent offenders such as drug courts, DUI courts, and the 24-7 sobriety program. He noted that these measures “will make it less likely they’ll re-offend in the future and keep our public more safe.” Similar legislation signed in 2011 by another conservative governor, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, reduced the use of incarceration for low-level drug possession offenses while strengthening the capacity of probation officers to impose swift, sure, and commensurate sanctions as well as effective treatment interventions.

Research shows that strategies such as drug courts, the Hawaii HOPE Court, mandatory treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and electronic monitoring can cost effectively put many nonviolent offenders on the path to being productive citizens, rather than a drain on taxpayers.

We now know that swift, sure, and commensurate sanctions are particularly effective in promoting compliance. This is the hallmark of the Hawaii HOPE Court, where drug offenders are told in advance that if they test positive for drugs or fail to show up for a drug test, they will go to jail the next day or the upcoming weekend. Each participant must call in every morning to see if it is their day to come in for a drug test. In a controlled group study this court, which costs a small fraction of incarceration, has been found to reduce substance abuse and re-offending by two-thirds.

Undoubtedly, conservatives have taken notice upon seeing folks like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, Grover Norquist, and Bill Bennett sign the Right on Crime Statement of Principles. However, the proof in the pudding has come as conservative policymakers across the nation have transformed theory into reality. While some politicians may have once judged their success in corrections by how many people are in prison, today we are asking different questions. How much crime are we reducing with every dollar spent? How many victims are obtaining restitution? How many nonviolent ex-offenders are now in the workforce? In short, we must move from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results, and conservatives are on the front lines of this movement.

Marc Levin is the policy director for Right on Crime, a national campaign for conservative criminal justice reforms led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He can be reached at mlevin@texaspolicy.com or www.rightoncrime.com.