Norquist: 'Conservatives May Have Wanted More Incarceration Than Was Necessary'

WASHINGTON – As a young man Grover Norquist, the conservative activist and noted anti-tax crusader, used to travel down to the local courthouse to watch the trials that were taking place.

A bit later, as part of what he characterized as a “do-gooder” program, he had the opportunity to visit and speak with prisoners incarcerated in local correctional facilities.

Now the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform finds himself involved in another reform effort as one of the signatories for Right on Crime, an organization looking to reduce prison costs by, among other things, developing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

“I’ve always been interested in the subject,” Norquist said during a break in the Right on Crime conference held in Washington last week. “Conservatives may have wanted more incarceration than was necessary in the past, so what we’re trying to do is find out about what works.”

Norquist, who spends a substantial amount of time judging the efficacy of various governmental programs, said corrections shouldn’t be viewed differently from the Defense Department or any number of other programs – it needs to be operated efficiently and be held accountable for its spending practices.

“It’s important to focus not on what we want but what we should do based on the data. The question should be, ‘Are you reducing crime?’” Norquist said. “We need to measure outcomes. Is crime going down, not how much are we spending.”

Decisions regarding corrections shouldn’t be “trusted to bureaucrats,” Norquist said. Instead, he said, “we need more of a focus on cost-effective, measured outcomes.”

Reforms advocated by Right on Crime – reserving prison primarily for violent and serious offenders while working with nonviolent offenders to reduce recidivism – “has worked in Texas and other states across the South,” he said. “It has cut crime and cut government spending. It’s based on solid conservative principles and it’s what good governance is all about.”

“We’re making real progress state by state,” he said.

Right on Crime, an organization founded by the conservative Texas Public Policy foundation, met in Washington this month 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 this 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.”