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.


Coordinating Case Files in Milwaukee

Juveniles slipping through the cracks and missing out on opportunities that could curb their delinquency plague every jurisdiction in the country. This cohort of juveniles is often most at risk for recidivism, giving Milwaukee officials good reason to attempt to nip the cycle in the bud.

Milwaukee’s police department, prosecutors, criminal justice officials, and even school and health and human service agency representatives are meeting up and sharing the information they have on a select number of juveniles in Milwaukee at highest risk for continued delinquency issues.

Sharing the information, the group hopes, will ensure that key data and underlying issues are not overlooked by any one of the agencies. Sometimes it’s the little things—such as information regarding a substance abuse issue known to the schools but not to the prosecutors—that can play a major role in curbing delinquency.

Putting the collective wisdom to work and sharing information is a good step towards preventing missed opportunities to cut down on crime.


Pilot Juvenile Reentry Program in Illinois

Parts of Chicago and surrounding suburbs are taking steps to reduce the number of youths who cycle through the doors of the state juvenile lockups.

Officials estimate that they see about 50 percent of released youths returning to incarceration at some point following their initial stay. That rate is simply too high, given the societal costs of their continued delinquency as well as the taxpayer costs for repeated bouts of secure confinement. A year in a secure facility in Illinois costs over $80,000 per year.

A non-profit has recently begun a three year program under a grant from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, which aims to slash recidivism rates by targeting the underlying issues, whether related to substance abuse or family problems.

The program will assign a case manager to each participating youth, who will work to coordinate drug and alcohol treatment, vocational training, education, or family therapy, depending on each juvenile’s needs.


Texas Newspapers Highlight State Prison Reforms

A recent article in the Austin American-Statesman, titled “Texas prison population shrinks as rehabilitation programs take root,” covers the state’s recent success in reducing its incarceration rate. Texas’s prison population is at its lowest in five years, despite sustained growth in the state’s overall population. This is due, in part, to Texas’s recent focus on alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment and rehabilitation, which are both cheaper and more effective at preventing recidivism than simply locking up offenders.

As Right On Crime’s Marc Levin notes, these proven alternatives are the conservative solution to a burgeoning prison system, a problem that had been ignored for too long.

“Policies in various states are finally catching up with what we know works,” said Marc Levin, director at the Austin-based Center for Effective Justice [at the Texas Public Policy Foundation] and a leader in the national Right on Crime campaign, which promotes community-justice solutions.

“For most nonviolent offenders, community-based initiatives are much cheaper and have much better outcomes,” Levin said. “In this time of tight budgets and programs that work, this is the conservative thing to do.”

Similarly, as outlined in a recent piece in the Houston Chronicle titled “Texas says rise in parolees gives state bragging rights,” Texas officials are celebrating further corrections reform success. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has continued its trend of granting parole more often, and revoking it less often; paroles are now granted 31% of the time, a 6% increase over the past decade, and revocations are down 44% from the all-time high (11,374) in 2004.

Most importantly, the state is seeing public safety benefits. Texas is returning more people to their families and communities, while fewer crimes are being committed (three percent fewer this year than in the previous one). Parolees are generally electronically monitored and many more offenders are now completing recidivism-reducing programs in prison, such as education, job training, and/or substance-abuse treatment.


Right On Crime Statement on the End of the Gibson Guitar Case

Yesterday, I issued the following statement upon the conclusion of the year-long drama in which the Department of Justice used the Lacey Act to fine Gibson Guitar $350,000 for importing ebony from Madagascar that was legally harvested, but shipped unfinished:

“The Lacey Act was originally crafted to protect endangered plant and animal species from being illicitly harvested, but it has devolved into an enforcement vehicle that fails to separate legal acts that boost our free-market economy from illicit criminal conduct.  The Gibson Guitar investigation has highlighted the urgent and serious need to reform the Lacey Act.  Such reforms should include requirements for the prosecution to provide proof the defendant acted intentionally and assurance that any penalties it inflicts are civil, not criminal, unless there is direct physical or economic harm to humans.

“Gibson Guitar’s case has helped to bring public attention to the dangers of overcriminalization, but the legendary guitar manufacturer is far from the only victim.  There are countless other cases that also raise troubling questions concerning the over 4,500 federal criminal laws and the failure to require proof of intent before an individual or business can be convicted.  Right on Crime is committed to documenting examples of overcriminalization and working with policymakers to advance much-needed reforms.”

On August 24, 2011, Gibson Guitar factories were raided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency ordered workers to go home and confiscated over 100 guitars and boxes of raw materials.

The federal government justified the raid under the Lacey Act-a law originally intended to curb the poaching of endangered species that allows the United States to interpret and enforce criminal laws of other countries.

Gibson imports wood to create fingerboards for their guitars. The wood seized during the raid was harvested legally and was from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier.  Moreover, U.S. Customs allowed the shipment to pass through America’s border to Gibson’s factory.

For more information from Right on Crime, please click here.


California Continues County Realignment

California’s counties are continuing their efforts to handle the increased number of inmates under their jurisdiction following the massive prison realignment to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.

While a comprehensive assessment is forthcoming, some preliminary results are positive. In years past, 14 percent of felons failed to report to their parole officers following release from a state prison. Of the 23,000 inmates transferred to county control, less than four percent have failed to report to their county probation officer.

This reduction in absconding inmates has occurred in a variety of ways: some counties are transporting inmates directly from the prison gate, ensuring that they check in rather than leaving it up to them. Others are reaching out with letters detailing their responsibilities as well as services available.

Counties have a long way to go in adjusting to their new supervision and jail populations—especially as the influx is fluctuating, with some counties receiving more and some receiving fewer inmates than predicted—but if these early reductions in absconders is any indication, local control may play a role in strengthening public safety in California.