Criminal Justice Reform: A New Domain of the Right?

WASHINGTON – Some prominent conservatives, including former Attorney General Ed Meese and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are getting behind a movement to slash the nation’s prison costs by offering alternative punishments for non-violent offenders.

Right on Crime, an organization founded by the conservative Texas Public Policy foundation, met in Washington last week to exchange ideas on ways to reform what supporters maintain is an inefficient criminal justice system.

While the U.S. has only about five percent of the world’s population it has 25 percent of the globe’s prison population, owing in large part to policies implemented in the 1960s and 1970s that instituted often heavy sentences for non-violent drug offenders. As a result, corrections spending is now the second-fastest growing area of state budgets behind Medicaid.

Prisons, Right on Crime asserts, “serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening non-violent, low-risk offenders – making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”

In a “call to action” released at last week’s session, Right on Crime further declared that prisons serve a critical role in society “but we can’t just build our way to public safety.”

“Low-level non-violent drug and property offenders can often be punished and held accountable in ways that aren’t as expensive as prison but that are more effective in helping them become law-abiding taxpayers rather than tax burdens,” the group said.

Conservatives “have often looked the other way regarding the growing cost and declining public safety benefits of a prison system that locks nearly one in every 100 American adults behind bars,” the group determined. “In our earnest desire to have safer neighborhoods, policy responses to crime have too often neglected core conservative values -- government accountability, personal responsibility, family preservation, victim restoration, fiscal discipline, limited government and free enterprise.”

"Everybody forgot what the mission in our society of the criminal justice system is,” said David Keene, former president of the National Rifle Association and chairman of the American Conservative Union. “It's not simply to punish people. It's not simply to extract retribution. It's to provide a safer society. And to treat people humanely."

Meese, who served as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, said he has been looking at prison reform “for probably 50 years” and that conservatives are making some progress in determining “what works and doesn’t work.”

Conservatives, Meese said, should get involved in the campaign because “number one, they want to reduce crime, number two they’re interested in people, including rehabilitating people and making constructive citizens to the extent possible out of those who violated society’s rules.”

“We’re looking for a few ideas to do a better job to reduce crime,” he said.

Gingrich and others argued that the idea is to reduce prison costs while simultaneously bolstering public safety. The former Republican lawmaker from Georgia noted that New York City spends $168,000 a year for each prisoner housed at Riker’s Island. For that amount, he said, the prisoner could get a three-year education at Harvard. And they have an 80 percent chance of returning to prison once released.

The key, Gingrich said, is “separating out the truly violent criminals you need to just keep locked up and recognizing there are an awful lot of folks you would like to have make one mistake one time and then get reintegrated back into a productive society.”