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.”

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.