Right On Crime Launches in Florida

On Wednesday evening, the Right On Crime campaign launched in Florida, and on Thursday morning, Dominic Calabro and Marc Levin published an op-ed entitled “Right On Crime and Tough on the Bottom Line” in The Tallahassee Democrat.  You can read the editorial in its entirety below or you can read it simply by clicking here.  Pictures from the Florida launch, which featured Right On Crime Statement of Principles signatory Grover Norquist, can be viewed at RightOnCrime’s Facebook page.

“Right On Crime and Tough on the Bottom Line” by Dominic Calabro and Marc Levin

Floridians pour nearly $3 billion a year into the state’s corrections system, primarily to incarcerate more than 100,000 inmates.  What taxpayers get in return is a broken system that too often fails to reverse the cycle of crime. One in three released prisoners re-enters Florida’s corrections system within three years, and 65 percent return behind bars within five.

To address this concern, the Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice is hosting Americans for Tax Reform Chairman Grover Norquist in Tallahassee this week for discussions with state policymakers about the nationwide Right on Crime initiative.

In December 2010, the nation’s conservative leaders launched the Right on Crime campaign to increase public awareness of the truly conservative stance on criminal justice policy. Individuals such as Norquist, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Ed Meese, and former federal “drug czar” Bill Bennett are among its strongest supporters.

Historically in Florida, political rhetoric has hindered reform efforts. However, with a crippling $3.6 billion budget gap and a powerful conservative movement rooted limited government, personal responsibility and local accountability, there is a renewed effort to address the inefficiencies in government — including the corrections system.

In 2008, Florida cut education spending by $332 million, while adding $308 million to the corrections coffer. In total, 15 percent of state general revenue funds are used for the criminal justice system. While prisons are vital for protecting the public from violent and dangerous criminals, fewer than 20 percent of admissions to Florida prisons are for such offenses against the person.

If booming expenditures and incarceration rates were the best strategy for making our streets safer, the cost would be worthwhile, but other states are finding that alternative approaches can more affordably reduce crime.

From 2000 to 2007, New York decreased incarceration by 16 percent. During that same period, Florida increased incarceration by 16 percent. Despite lower imprisonment rates in the Empire State, New York’s crime rate fell by twice as much as Florida’s.

Much of that dramatic reduction is attributable to New York City, where data-driven policing and evidence-based practices in probation supervision have become the corrections system’s focus.

If inmates are not properly managed and treated, they are going to come out of prison prepared for a life of crime. We have inadvertently set up some of our prisons to be crime colleges.

Florida’s criminal justice system needs corrections, and conservatives must lead the way toward reform.

When it comes to nonviolent offenders, Right on Crime looks beyond the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach.

Today’s criminal justice must transition from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results.

Florida has implemented successful education reforms that measure performance and incentivize progress on key benchmarks, and the state must do the same in corrections, holding prisons and probation offices accountable for reducing re-offending, lowering substance-abuse rates, collecting restitution for victims, and transitioning ex-offenders from tax burdens to taxpayers. Probation offices that succeed in keeping more of their supervised offenders on the straight and narrow, thereby saving the state money on prisons, should receive a share of those savings.

In 2005, Texas legislators adopted an incentive-based paradigm that tied probation departments’ funding to the enhancement of supervision strategies and the reduction of the rate at which probationers are revoked to prison. Two years later, policymakers advocated for proven community-based corrections approaches (such as drug courts) in an effort to avoid building more prisons.

Texas’ reforms have saved that state more than $2 billion in prison construction and operation costs over five years. Additionally, from 2004 to 2009, the crime rate fell by 10 percent, reaching its lowest point since 1973.

Currently, one in 31 adults is under some form of correctional control in Florida, and the state’s incarceration rate is 26 percent higher than the national average.

When low-risk, nonviolent offenders go into prison, they often arrive back to our communities as more hardened criminals. Far less costly interventions have proven to better reduce re-offending and promote employment so participants contribute to their communities rather than drain our treasury.

Conservatives are rightly tough on crime, but writing a blank check for any government program without demanding results is in opposition to every conservative principle.

It is time for Florida policymakers to get criminal justice right by implementing cost-effective approaches that have proven to enhance public safety in other states.

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What Florida Conservatives Think about Criminal Justice

Right On Crime is launching in Florida this week.  In conjunction with the launch, the campaign conducted a poll in Florida to investigate current attitudes towards criminal justice policy in the Sunshine State.  Over 80% of the poll respondents identified as either conservative or moderate.

Because the respondents leaned conservative/centrist, several of the answers were quite interesting.  Consider the following: “Do you agree or disagree that individuals who are ‘Tough on Crime’ can also support innovative cost-effective sanctions for nonviolent offenders — such as community supervision, mandatory drug testing and treatment programs — which will reduce the likelihood that an offender will commit a new crime as well as amount to significant savings for Florida taxpayers.”  Nearly 85% of poll respondents agreed with that statement; nearly 50% indicated that they “strongly agreed.”

This question yielded similarly interesting results: “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘It does not matter whether a nonviolent offender is in prison for 21 or 24 or 27 months.  What really matters is that the system does a better job of making sure that when an offender does get out, he is less likely to commit another crime.”  Nearly 90% of respondents agreed with this statement; 64% indicated that they “strongly agreed.”

The polling results suggest that some caricatures of conservative views on criminal justice are deeply flawed.  Conservatives do not think that sentencing offenders to prison time is the only way to be “tough on crime.”  Nor do they believe that incrementally increasing prison sentences year after year is preferable to a policy that might do more to reduce recidivism.  Conservatives, according to the poll, favor the reasonable use of prison space – generally for violent offenders – but they are also open to alternative sanctions for non-violent offenders if those alternatives are effective.  Now all they need is elected officials who will be responsive to their concerns.

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Discussing Pepper v. United States with Mike McConnell

Last week, I discussed Right On Crime’s perspective on the recent Supreme Court decision in Pepper v. United States with Chicago radio show host Mike McConnell. I emphasized that Supreme Court decisions are frequently “lagging indicators” because they reflect the direction in which legal and public opinion moved in preceding years. Pepper, for example, is an encouraging sign that legal and public opinion is increasingly acknowledging the value of treatment – rather than incarceration — as the appropriate response for certain non-violent crimes. Even Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented in Pepper based on a technical point, wrote the following: “Like the majority, I believe that postsentencing rehabilitation can be highly relevant to meaningful resentencing. In light of Pepper’s success in escaping drug addiction and becoming a productive member of society, I do not see what purpose further incarceration would serve.”

In addition to listening to the interview below, take a look at this post from The Economist and this post from The Washington Post for more on the Pepper opinion.

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How Misguided Policies are Limiting Employment for Ex-Offenders

An interesting new article in The Crime Report details the mountain of restrictions that ex-offenders face when trying to gain employment. Some of these restrictions are sensible (“[s]ex-offenders are generally barred from work in schools [and] ex-felons cannot generally work in law enforcement”), but many of the restrictions are based on little or no criminological research. For example, the article explains that many restrictions preventing ex-offenders from becoming barbers are based on concerns about what someone with a history of violence may do if given a sharp blade.  (“[T]hink Sweeny Tood” the article quips.)  Such restrictions may make sense for offenders who were convicted of violent crimes, but it is difficult to see why public safety necessarily benefits from imposing such restrictions on non-violent offenders. Indeed, if unreasonable restrictions on employment cause ex-offenders to recidivate (research shows that employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism), then it is possible that these policies are a net detriment to public safety.

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Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It!

For a country that managed without a federal prison for its first hundred years, the size of the current United States prison system—with nearly 210,000 inmates and 4,500 federal crimes—demonstrates that the federal government has assumed a more expansive role in criminal justice. In an editorial for The Washington Times, however, Pat Nolan and Julie Stewart argue that most criminal justice should instead be within the province of local authorities.

In light of a new rule introduced by Republican members of Congress requiring lawmakers to cite a specific constitutional power when proposing a bill, Nolan and Stewart are hopeful that the efforts will “halt the growing federalization of crime.” They argue that in addition to the explosion in federal drug laws and the introduction of new crimes like “carjacking,” Congress has also “turned traditionally state and local offenses into federal crimes…routinely [attaching] mandatory minimum sentences to the new crimes it has created.” What is surprising, they add, is how conservatives have supported this increasing federalization.

Conservative organizations like Right on Crime, however, are “part of a growing bipartisan consensus” concerned not only with the over-federalization of crime, but also with overcriminalization in general.  Hopefully, the new Congressional rule will ultimately serve to reverse the trend towards unnecessary federalization.

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