How the 2012 GOP Platform Tackles Criminal Justice

This week, during its quadrennial national convention, the Republican Party released its 2012 platform. The platform is yet another indicator of how conservative leaders are reapplying basic conservative principles to criminal justice. For example, the new platform contains language explicitly emphasizing the importance of prisoner reentry, a notable change from the 2008 platform which contained none. The new platform urges that “[p]risons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.”

Similarly, the new platform contains language emphasizing the importance of restorative justice, yet another element that did not appear in the 2008 platform:

“Government at all levels should work with faith-based institutions that have proven track records in diverting young and first time, non-violent offenders from criminal careers, for which we salute them. Their emphasis on restorative justice, to make the victim whole and put the offender on the right path, can give law enforcement the flexibility it needs in dealing with different levels of criminal behavior. We endorse State and local initiatives that are trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation.”

The starkest change in the party platform from 2008 to 2012 is the inclusion of new – and relatively detailed – language criticizing overcriminalization:

“The resources of the federal government’s law enforcement and judicial systems have been strained by two unfortunate expansions: the over-criminalization of behavior and the over-federalization of offenses. The number of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code increased from 3,000 in the early 1980s to over 4,450 by 2008. Federal criminal law should focus on acts by federal employees or acts committed on federal property – and leave the rest to the States. Then Congress should withdraw from federal departments and agencies the power to criminalize behavior, a practice which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has created “tens of thousands” of criminal offenses. No one other than an elected representative should have the authority to define a criminal act and set criminal penalties. In the same way, Congress should reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the State or local level.”

Of course, for those who have been following the criminal justice reforms led in recent years by prominent GOP governors (e.g., John Kasich in Ohio, Nathan Deal in Georgia, Bobby Jindal in Lousiana) none of these changes will seem especially surprising.


Tampa Targets Juvenile First-Timers

Just six years ago, Hillsborough County and its county seat, Tampa, led the state in the number of juveniles arrested for nonviolent or minor offenses. County commissioners were dismayed by not only the costs this created for their court system, but also for the rap sheets now carried by thousands of juveniles–arrest records can sometimes create obstacles to college education or employment.

To ensure that the juvenile justice system was focused on delinquents in true need of intervention, in 2011 the county created a diversion program specifically for first-time juvenile offenders accused of one of eight low-level misdemeanors.

Eligible juveniles must not have any prior delinquency issues, take responsibility for their actions, and comply with the program’s requirements, which can involve restitution or formal apologies.

In the program’s first year of operation, 688 juveniles entered the program, and 626—or 91 percent—successfully completed the program, wiping their slate clean.

While further fine-tuning of the program is necessary, Hillsborough County has taken the first step towards halting the cycle of delinquency and targeting justice system resources to more serious juvenile offenders.


Governor Chris Christie Answers Crime Victims’ Pleas

It is clear that Mitt Romney has a friend in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but so do those who have been victims of crime. On August 8, Gov. Christie signed groundbreaking legislation he championed that empowers New Jersey residents who have been victims of crime.

This legislation gives victims access to more information from prosecutors, assists victims of violent crime with medical expenses out of funds paid by offenders, and entitles victims to appear in court for all proceedings. Perhaps most importantly, the new law requires a judge to consider a victim’s statement before accepting a plea bargain. Moreover, the law gives victims a tool to enforce these protections, as it gives them legal standing to file motions to ensure that their interests are recognized.

The vast majority of criminal cases in the modern criminal justice system are resolved through plea bargaining. In most states, victims do not have a right to be informed about plea bargaining proceedings or provide input to the court concerning their opinion of the plea deal. This is particularly important, since research has shown victims may have somewhat different priorities than the prosecution, with restitution being the number one goal of victims in property crime cases.

This is not the first time Gov. Christie has provided strong leadership on criminal justice reform. In late July, as we documented on Right on Crime, he signed legislation that redirects low-level drug possession offenders to drug courts, which are proven to reduce recidivism. This measure will save taxpayers’ dollars and better prioritize prison space for violent and dangerous offenders.

Few doubt Gov. Christie’s toughness, but he is not just tough, he is also smart, when it comes to crime. Thanks to his leadership, there is now more hope for both victims of crime and those seeking to overcome a drug habit.


The Extraordinary Size of the US Prison Population

Learn Liberty’s latest video examines the U.S. prison population, which is estimated to be the largest among all developed nations. Daniel D’Amico, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans, outlines the comparatively large degree of incarceration in the U.S., which may even be more extensive (as a total number and as a percentage of population) than it is in Russia and China. The costs, both economic and human, of this widespread incarceration are staggering. The level of incarceration is fiscally irresponsible and difficult to justify.

Professor D’Amico correctly points out that “the large and active role of our federal government” in criminal justice differentiates the U.S. from most other developed countries, which handle crime at the local level. It is worth mentioning that this expanded role only came about in the last 30 or so years. Historically, the federal government played only a small role in criminal justice, and never incarcerated more than approximately 24,000 people until the 1980s. Now, the federal prison population stands at approximately 218,000 inmates. Overall, the U.S.’s total incarcerated population (over 1.6 million) dwarfs that of its allies, such as the U.K. (~79,000), France (~57,000), or Canada (~35,000).

From the video:

“Perhaps the nickname ‘The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave’ should be updated, although I suppose you need to be brave to endure the highest likelihood of incarceration the world has ever known. Prisons are not what we think about when we think of America, and they shouldn’t have to be. A free nation shouldn’t imprison so many people, and a fiscally responsible nation can’t afford to. With close to $40 billion a year in state correctional spending, the financial costs are obvious and staggering alone. But the human costs are often underappreciated; 1.6 million fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of American families are incarcerated. It’s time for people to realize that the criminal justice system in America is desperately in need of reform.”

The video, titled “US Prison Population: The Largest in the World,” can be viewed here.


Targeting Truancy Outside of the Juvenile Justice System

Beginning this week, students in Los Angeles’ Unified School District who are truant three times or more will no longer be automatically ticketed and sent to court.

Instead, the youth will first be sent to a counselor at a Youth WorkForce Center, who will be tasked with figuring out what is causing the truancy in the first place. The counselor will then seek to provide the tools to fix the problem, and hopefully increase the number of kids who graduate rather than drop out.

Under the previous policy, three truancy violations resulted in a ticket, which required the youth to appear in court with his or her parent, and pay a hefty fine. This resulted in an estimated 10,000 tickets each school year.

School officials and court administrators are hoping this policy will reduce court costs and permit more efficient use of judicial resources, as well as ensure truancy is better addressed in Los Angeles.