Criminal Justice Reform: A New Domain of the Right?

Conservatives attending the conference were sensitive to the claim that their approach could be construed as “soft on crime.” But a poll conducted for the Pew Center on the States by Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group in March 2012 found that American voters already believe too many people are in prison and the nation spends too much money on incarceration. They support policy changes that shift non-violent offenders from prison to more effective, less expensive alternatives.

The call for reform, the poll concluded, is strong among all groups.

“The message of the day is it’s safe for politicians to go into the waters of the criminal justice system,” said Richard Viguerie, the longtime conservative activist who now heads up conservativehq.com.

In fact, most of the reforms underway are taking place in conservative states. Starting with Texas in 2007, many states considered among the most conservative – like South Carolina and Mississippi -- have passed sentencing and corrections reform. The changes have steered lower-level offenders away from prison and reinvested some of the savings realized from reduced corrections spending into substance abuse and mental health treatment and other programs designed to cut re-offense rates. Texas reduced the number of returning prisoners as a result of the reforms and has proved able to close three state prisons.

Right on Crime maintains Texas and South Carolina have “not only eased the burden on taxpayers but most importantly seen sharp declines in crime.”

And, as Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safey Performance Project, told the group, “Nobody has ever accused Texas of being soft on crime.”

Much of the focus on the Washington meeting centered on Mississippi, which passed criminal justice reform legislation earlier this year that is expected to save the state $266 million over the next 10 years. The legislation prioritizes prison bed space for serious and violent offenders and increases alternatives for non-violent offenders who can be monitored in the community.

The savings in the Mississippi law is directed at drug courts and other rehabilitation and re-entry programs intended to reduce recidivism.