Right On Crime’s Efforts Mentioned in The Economist

Last week, The Economist published an article highlighting the new ways in which conservatives are approaching criminal justice problems, and Right On Crime’s role was mentioned.  Click here to read the article on The Economist’s website, or read it in full below.

Right and Proper: With a Record of Being Tough on Crime, The Political Right Can Afford to Start Being Clever About It

The word commonly used to describe a politician who publicly announces he wants to send fewer criminals to prison is “loser”. But back in February there was David Williams, president of Kentucky’s Senate, speaking in favour of a bill that would do just that. The bill in question would steer non-violent offenders towards drug treatment rather than jail. It is projected to save $422m over the next decade, and will invest about half those savings in improving the state’s treatment, parole and probation programmes. Mr Williams, who believes Kentucky “incarcerates too many people at too great a cost,” praised the bill for recognising “the possibility for forgiveness and redemption and change in someone’s life”. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate 38-0, and on May 17th Mr Williams went on to win the Republican nomination for governor.

Mr Williams and his Republican colleagues join the swelling ranks of conservatives who have taken up the cause of sentencing and prison reform. In February Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, announced a bill to create a council to recommend changes in how his state sentences criminals. On May 11th Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, signed a law expanding alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. This follows similar measures in South Carolina and Texas, both of them conservative states with Republican governors.

Driving these reforms is a simple factor: cost. Over the past two decades, crime rates have fallen but prison populations have risen. More people have been jailed for more crimes—particularly non-violent drug-related crimes—and kept there longer. Pat Nolan, a former Republican legislator from California who served time in prison for racketeering and now works for Prison Fellowship, a prison ministry, laments that “we build jails for people we’re afraid of, and fill them with people we’re mad at.”

And fill them America has. Over the past two decades, spending on prisons has grown faster than any segment of states’ budgets except Medicaid. Between 1989 and 2009 prison spending in Kentucky grew by 340%. Georgia spends $1 billion a year on corrections, despite spending less than the national average on each inmate.

Texas began tackling these problems in the last decade. In 2003 it started mandating probation rather than prison for first-time offenders caught with less than a gram of hard drugs. Two years later it gave the probation board more money to improve supervision and treatment programmes. In 2007, faced with predictions that it would need over 17,000 new prison beds by 2012, requiring $1.13 billion to build and $1.5 billion to operate, Texas allocated $241m to fund treatment programmes. Since 2003 crime of many kinds has declined in Texas. Between 2007 and 2008, Texas’s incarceration rate fell by 4.5%, while nationally the rate rose slightly. Both juvenile crime and the number of juveniles in state institutions have declined.

These reforms saved money. In slowing recidivism, they turned prisoners from tax burdens into taxpaying citizens. And they acknowledged something that tough-on-crime rhetoric has too long ignored: almost everyone in prison will eventually return to society. Better they return as good neighbours and productive citizens.

The fact that the reforms that produced these encouraging figures came from hang-em-high Texas, and not, say, hippie Vermont, has given them political as well as policy credibility. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a prominent supporter of an initiative called Right on Crime, which advocates criminal-justice reform from conservative ground, argues that “nobody’s going to listen to Barney Frank” (a particularly liberal congressman) on these issues. Just as Richard Nixon could open relations with China without being thought soft on communism, so conservatives can push for sentencing reform without being considered soft on crime.


More Mental Health Courts in Georgia

Due to a shortage of proper facilities and care, prisons have become the de facto home for the mentally ill and a significant financial burden on state corrections budgets. (Mental health patients cost $10,000 – 20,000 more per year than sound-minded inmates.)  Mentally ill prisoners also have significantly higher recidivism rates (due to the dearth of prison rehabilitative services), which only increases the financial burden on states.  The problem is nationwide in scope, and little is being done to remedy it.

Georgia, however, has just passed legislation (in the midst of a budget crisis) to establish a large number of mental health courts.  Georgia Governor Deal had this to say:

“The creation of the mental health courts is a step in our approach to provide judicial supervision, appropriate treatment and rehabilitation and to reduce the frequency of recidivism, particularly among those with substance abuse disorders… Far too many young people and adults suffering from addiction are crowding our jails, costing our state millions and depleting our workforce…”

The twelve mental health courts already existing in Georgia are funded exclusively by the county governments. The new legislation, however, allows for state funding to be redirected toward the construction of new facilities.   David Sweat, the judge responsible for the creation of one of the existing courts and the drafter of the bill said, “The change in people who participate in the program is remarkable.”

The legislation operates under a rule applied in drug and DUI courts — those charged with murder, child molestation, and rape are ineligible for the mental health courts.


Eli Lehrer Comments on Brown v. Plata at The Corner

Earlier this week, Right On Crime signatory Eli Lehrer had some interesting thoughts on the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata. Lehrer wrote about the case for National Review’sThe Corner

The Supreme Court–ordered releases from California’s horribly managed, terribly overcrowded prisons are humane and necessary. As a matter of judicial reasoning, however, my first sympathies are with justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito: The specific and sweeping nature of the Court’s ruling (California must cut its prison population by 30,000 within three years) does seem to overstep a limited role for the judiciary. That said, the evidence of the truly horrendous conditions in Golden State’s prison system — the third or fourth largest correctional complex in the world depending on how one counts — really do seem to constitute just the sort of cruel and unusual punishment the judiciary ought to prevent.

The real problem here isn’t the state’s decision to build lots of correctional facilities — doing so did play a major role in reducing its once sky-high crime rate — or even its “tough on crime” laws that appropriately increased sentences for violent offenders, but rather a political paralysis that prevented commonsense, common-ground tweaks to these policies from becoming law. Other states including both famously tough-on-crime Texas and liberal, flaky-as-California Hawaii have successfully and sweepingly reformed their corrections policies, cut prison populations, intensified community supervision, and seen their crimes rates continue to decline. And they’ve done it all while maintain prison populations at historically high levels and locking up many serious violent offenders forever.

California, possessed of a dysfunctional political culture, made few of these moves and instead gave corrections individual corrections officers enormous pay increases (a few givebacks have taken place recently) while neglecting every other aspect of prison administration aside from the bricks and mortar of the prison buildings. The horrendous conditions that resulted aren’t surprising and they are certainly an indictment of California’s political culture. That said, what’s justified in California is not justified elsewhere in the country. Many many states have woken up to new, conservative thinking on crime that emphasizes effective, proportional punishment rather than simply locking people up and hoping for the best. The Supreme Court’s ruling on California, sadly, was necessary, but one hopes other states’ legislative and executive branches will do more to move towards effective prison reform without any need for the involvement of the judiciary.

— Eli Lehrer is vice president of the Heartland Institute.


Sorting Out the Merits of Privately-Owned Prisons

Last week, a New York Times editorial argued that privately-owned prisons “can cost more to operate than state-run prisons,” even though these prisons allegedly cherry-pick inmates by excluding sick inmates who may cost more. In questioning the wisdom of recent privatization efforts, the editorial cites a report published by the Arizona Department of Corrections, which found that “inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons,”

This analysis, however, does not take into consideration the effect that privately owned prisons have on public corrections costs. A 2007 Vanderbilt study, for instance, found that “state correctional systems which use private prisons in addition to public prisons experience lower rates of growth in the cost of housing their public prisoners” in comparison to states without private prisons. In particular, between 1999 and 2004, the average cost of housing prisoners in a public facility grew by about 5 percent in states without a private prison. But, average costs increased by less than 2 percent in states with some prisoners housed in privately run prisons.

As the Vanderbilt study shows, the merit of privately-owned prisons should not only be measured by a cost-per-inmate comparison. Rather, as an April 2011 Reason report argues, Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs) can “provide an effective, cost-saving alternative for governments seeking to address significant capacity needs while taking pressure off their corrections budget.”

Nevertheless, there is some evidence suggesting that private prisons do cost less to operate than government-run prisons, producing savings between 5 and 20 percent. Of 28 studies reviewed by the Reason Foundation, 22 found that savings averaged about 15 percent, while the other six studies found the costs to be about the same. In Texas, for example, in 2008, it cost Texas taxpayers $47.50 a day on average to keep an offender in a state prison, whereas privately operated prisons cost the state only $36.10 per day.

Equally important, though, is determining the best way to measure, evaluate and reward the performance of the prison system. In addition, there is the question Megan McArdle addressed yesterday of when the government should contract out. An interesting and innovative British proposal profiled last year would create a system in which each warden or contractor would have a portfolio of inmates—as if they were investments. As the report says, “the goal is to achieve a positive return by reducing recidivism through the efficient allocation of resources and implementation of effective practices both during the incarceration and parole phases of the offender’s progression through the system.” In effect, the plan would fund prisons partly based on their results.

As McArdle wrote “I’d be much more sanguine about the prospects for an agency in either the prison or welfare system that got paid only if their “clients” stayed employed, out of jail, and drug free for a year after leaving the system.”


Texas Lawmakers Look to Make Changes to Sex Offender Registry

Texas is one of only a few states that includes in its public sex offender registration database the contact information of a sex offender’s employer. (A majority of the states exclude this information from their databases.) This has harmed some employers who become publicly linked with the database, while also forcing employers to be hesitant in hiring registrants.

The recidivism rates for sex offenders can be aggravated by barriers that restrict their ability to successfully re-integrate into society—in this case, barriers to employment. This is particularly troublesome in “Romeo & Juliet” cases wherein, for example, a consenting 19-year-old has sex with a consenting 17-year-old, and the 19-year old is required to register as a sex offender. While SB 198 looks to address the Romeo & Juliet problem, HB 3346 seeks to address the harm to employers by removing employer information from the database. HB 3346 passed with bipartisan sponsorship and overwhelming support in the House (138-2), while SB 198 is awaiting a signature from Governor Perry.

The Department of Public Safety unilaterally decided to add employer information to the registry in 2008, apparently in anticipation of its requirement by the federal Adam Walsh Act. However, Texas has been resisting the requirements of the Act, “saying the cost for Texas to comply would be $38.8 million.” The federal Act bases registration on offenses committed, while Texas’s current sexual offender registry is based on risk assessment.


Texas Juvenile Agencies Merge into a Single Juvenile Justice Commission

According to a recent report from the Houston Chronicle, Texas lawmakers took a significant step in the right direction when Governor Rick Perry signed the Texas Youth Commission reform bill.  It passed unanimously in the state senate, and with only two dissenting votes in the house, showing a unified sentiment by both parties that criminal justice reform is a priority.  (Right On Crime previously discussed the legislation here.)

The legislation will reorganize several commissions into a single Texas Juvenile Justice Commission, shift available funds to rehabilitation programs, and close 30% of the state’s youth prisons.  Current estimates place the expected savings from the bill at $150 million.  Moreover, the advocates emphasized the societal benefits of such reforms.  Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), the bill’s sponsor, said “If you lock up kids and don’t deal with the root causes, they are going to re-offend.”  Texas Public Policy Foundation Board Member Tim Dunn similarly said “It is not in our best interest to take someone who is a productive member of society and train them to be a hardened criminal. It’s morally stupid.”

Texas has seen fiscal and substantive improvements with similar initiatives.  In 2007, Whitmire helped to save the state $300 million by advocating better probation and rehabilitation programs instead of building new prisons.  Since 2007, parole revocations have dropped 40%.  In 2006, Texas held 5,000 juveniles in custody, while today that number is down to 1,400, and the youth crime rate has fallen.


Recession? Lower Incarceration Rates? No Problem for Texas.

According the most recent annual report from the Department of Public Safety, Texas experienced a drop in both violent and non-violent crime rates across the board last year.  This is newsworthy on its own, but it is particularly notable that the drop in crime coincides with a statewide drop in incarceration, and an increase in unemployment.

Statewide, violent crime fell 8.3% and non-violent crime fell 5.7%.  Specifically, robbery fell a stunning 14.9% and rape fell by 9.2%.  Adult arrests dropped 4.6% and juvenile arrests dropped a huge 9.3%.

Dallas is an especially interesting case study.  In 2005, Dallas was given the FBI’s “most unsafe city in America” distinction, but it responded by abandoning its tough-on-crime approach.  Now, in the DPS report, Dallas led the state with a 10.2% drop in crime – and Big D is currently #52 on the FBI’s list.  Grits for Breakfast, a website that follows criminal justice developments in Texas, observes that numbers like this are “calling into question quite a few assumptions about incarceration and crime.”

Houston, San Antonio, Forth Worth, Austin, and El Paso all saw declines in crime rate as well, all coupled with lower incarceration rates than previous years.  Meanwhile Round Rock, which stubbornly adheres to the antiquated “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach, saw an 8% increase in crime.


Criminal Citations for Students Who Chew Gum?

Since 1995, Texas has been issuing criminal citations to students who misbehave at school and more than 275,000 such citations are now issued. While some are certainly appropriate, we have also seen Class C misdemeanors to ten-year-olds for chewing gum, sleeping in class, or cursing.

Texas Senate Bill 1116 by Representative Jerry Madden and Senator John Whitmire, which is on the House Calendar today, would address this absurdity by eliminating the practice of schools issuing Class C misdemeanors to students below the age of 12 for minor misbehavior that traditionally would have been dealt with in the school system. Evidence shows that there are more effective disciplinary practices than sending these kids to a municipal court, which can only fine their parents. Students this young are not appropriately held responsible for signing a citation saying that they will appear in court. Under this bill, officers could still arrest such youngsters for any offense for which any person can be arrested, ensuring that school safety will not be compromised.

Finally the proposed bill carries no fiscal note.  This is a problem that is solved with a little common sense, not tax dollars.  Texas should enhance discipline in schools instead of passing the paddle to municipal courts and putting 4th, 5th, and 6th graders on a path to the juvenile justice system for routine school misbehavior.


U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Order Releasing Thousands of Inmates

This morning, the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Brown v. Plata. Justice Kennedy, as usual, was the swing vote, and in this case he joined the liberal wing of the court in holding that a court order forcing California to reduce its prison population did not violate the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act. The releases were ordered to alleviate prison overcrowding that had been deemed violative of the Eighth Amendment.  In effect, the Court’s decision results in the release of tens of thousands of incarcerated persons. The full opinion is here.

The decision is a case study in why state legislators must take initiative on prison reform. When legislators ignore prison overcrowding – as California’s legislators have done for years – federal courts will step in and do the job for them via “structural injunctions” – and the results aren’t pretty.  Economist Steven Levitt’s research suggests that in the three years following court decisions ordering inmate releases, violent crime rises by ten percent and property crime rises by five percent. As Justice Scalia explained in his scathing dissent today:

Structural injunctions…[turn] judges into long-term administrators of complex social institutions such as schools, prisons, and police departments. Indeed, they require judges to play a role essentially indistinguishable from the role ordinarily played by executive officials….[Structural injunctions] force judges to engage in a form of factfinding-as-policymaking that is outside the traditional judicial role. The factfinding judges traditionally engage in involves the determination of past or present facts based…exclusively upon a closed trial record….When a judge manages a structural injunction, however, he will inevitably be required to make very broad empirical predictions necessarily based in large part upon policy views—the sort of predictions regularly made by legislators and executive officials, but inappropriate for the Third Branch.”

Justice Scalia went on to describe the release order as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” and he read his dissent (joined by Justice Thomas) from the bench.

This case, of course, never should have come this far. There was an alternative solution. Texas, for example, faced a looming overcrowding crisis in 2007, but state legislators confronted the crisis directly, made targeted changes that focused on diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, and ultimately prevented a “California-type” catastrophe.  Texas, in fact, was actually able to close a prison this year. The state also enjoys the lowest crime rate it has had since 1973.

Under today’s order, California now has three years to comply. A good place to start might be improved treatment programs for the 28,736 California inmates currently incarcerated for drug offenses, including 10,358 for possession. The state should also take a look at the 32,677 property offenders in its prison system.  California should follow Texas’s lead and use diversion programs to make sure that prisoners are not released carte blanche with no reentry services. California now has to get serious about reforming its criminal justice system – whether it wants to or not.


George Will on Prison Costs

George Will’s new column is about public sector employee unions in California, and it begins with this note about the state’s infamous prison guard union:

Pausing in his struggle to solve, or to get others to solve, today’s iteration of California’s recurring fiscal crisis, Jerry Brown, the recurring governor, recently approved a new contract for the prison guards union. Henceforth, guards can cash out at retirement an unlimited number of unused vacation days. Most California employees can monetize only 80 accrued days. Many guards will receive lump sums exceeding $100,000. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that guards possess time worth $600 million. The union contributed almost $2 million to Brown’s 2010 campaign.

In 1980, according to former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, 10 percent of the state’s general fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and 7.5 percent to higher education. The national average incarceration cost is $29,000 per inmate per year. California’s cost is $49,000, about $7,000 more than a year’s tuition at Dartmouth.