Washington Post Recognizes Conservative Criminal Justice Reform, Misses Its History

We’re glad the Washington Post has recognized the growing conservative support for reforms in our criminal justice system, “Some Republicans push compassionate, anti-poverty agenda ahead of 2016 contest.” Conservatives have been working on criminal justice reform since Chuck Colson founded the Prison Fellowship in 1974. Colson, found guilty of obstruction of justice for his part in the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandals, walked out the prison gates and called on his fellow conservatives to thoroughly revamp the nation’s corrections system. He formed bi-partisan coalitions that pressed for such landmark legislation as the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Second Chance Act.

Over the last decade, conservative leaders in the states balked at funding the skyrocketing costs of their prisons, arguing that correctional costs should be subject to the same scrutiny as every other section of government. Conservatives in states like Texas realized they were spending too much money incarcerating low-risk offenders who could be safely and less expensively helped in their communities; they found that lower incarceration costs can go together with greater public safety. By using data-driven research they were able to be more selective in who they sent to prison.

Thanks to its criminal justice reforms, crime rates in Texas are at their lowest since 1968; the falling inmate population enabled the state to close three prisons; and taxpayers have avoided $3 billion in prison costs. Other states—including South Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—have passed similar reforms with strong support from conservatives.

We are glad to see conservative leaders in Congress sponsoring these common sense and proven policies that keep the public safe and cut the cost of corrections.

Jerry Madden
Former Texas House of Representatives Corrections Chairman and Senior Fellow, Right On Crime

Pat Nolan
Former Republican leader of the California State Assembly
Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.

Senator Paul Pushes Substantial Forfeiture Reform

The movement for civil asset forfeiture reform has been gaining momentum as of late.  What started as a spotlight on the national practice from a libertarian law firm has recently spawned interest in local to national media.

Now, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has filed a bill seeking to substantially rein in the practice at the federal level.

Entitled the “Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act,” (S. 2644) this item of legislation proposes substantial reforms to the process through which the government can take property absent a criminal conviction.

The bill raises the burden of proof to execute the forfeiture of the property from “preponderance of the evidence” (in layman’s terms: just slightly more likely than not) to “clear and convincing evidence.”  In order to take full ownership of the property, federal prosecutors must now demonstrate that the item(s) in question has a “substantial connection” to the criminal offense to a higher standard approaching (though still short of) that for finding criminal guilt.

Perhaps most notably, the bill essentially stops equitable sharing, the common “end-around” used by state and local agencies to circumvent state forfeiture law.  As earlier research on civil asset forfeiture has shown, agencies in states with tighter civil forfeiture laws are more likely to engage in equitable sharing.

Further, the FAIR Act breathes new life into the “innocent owner” defense that lay eviscerated following Bennis v. Michigan.  Owners of property used by others for criminal purposes now must be shown to know their property was being used in illegal activities.

However, the “willful blindness” caveat contained in the bill could serve to hamper the effectiveness of this defense.  After all, how does one demonstrate due diligence in hedging against a future crime?

It also fails to extend already-existing procedural protections (namely, right to counsel) that those accused of criminal activity are due.  The cost of one’s own legal defense (oftentimes tens of thousands of dollars) is not transferable, and forces the own to determine if the legal victory is worth the cost to earn it irrespective of innocence.

While the fate of the current bill in still undetermined, it is heartening to see Congress proposing serious measures to preserve the sanctity of property rights and uphold the rule of law.

A New Push for Conservative Reform in California

A November ballot initiative in California is directed at reforming the state’s troubled criminal justice system. The California Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, would require that certain non-violent offenders—petty thieves, recipients of stolen property, those who write “hot” checks of less than $950, and low-level drug possession offenders—receive misdemeanor, rather than felony, sentences. The initiative would be made retroactive so that offenders in these categories who are currently serving felony sentences could be re-sentenced at the discretion of the court. Offenders with certain previous violent or sex offenses would be excluded and remain subject to felony sentencing.

State analysts project that the initiative could result in savings in the low hundreds of millions annually. These savings, in turn, would be redirected towards improved drug treatment, mental health services, and victims’ services. The Heritage Foundation discussed the ballot initiative here. Right On Crime signatory, B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., is a prominent advocate for the initiative, and he makes his case for the Act here.

ROC signatories in The Wall Street Journal: “An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform”

ROC signatories Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan co-authored an article for The Wall Street Journal in which they call on Congress to reform the federal prison system. The op-ed, titled “An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform,” states that “half of all federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses, not violent crimes,” and recommends that the government look to ‘right on crime’ states for sensible and proven reforms.

Click here to read the op-ed by Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan.

ROC signatory Mike Thompson: “States’ Improvements”

ROC signatory and President of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy Mike Thompson authored the following letter to the editor of the Virginian Pilot:

Prison is unquestionably the proper place for violent and repeat offenders, and long sentences for such dangerous felons will always be worth their hefty cost.But as Ken Cuccinelli and Deborah Daniels correctly argued in ‘Use prison time more effectively, humanely’ (column, June 24), many lower-level offenders can be effectively sanctioned in other ways without compromising public safety.

Using research to guide their efforts, a growing list of states Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota among them have reformed their correctional and sentencing systems to expand the use of prison alternatives. Such reforms adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support are not only saving states money but also reducing recidivism. These states hold nonviolent criminals accountable and keep communities safe.

Those who question such a strategy should take note of this compelling fact, reported recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts: States that have cut their imprisonment rates have experienced greater crime decreases than those that increased incarceration.

It’s hard to quarrel with evidence like that. Virginia’s legislators should take note.

More prisons not the answer

Hawke’s Bay Today released an article comparing the prison systems of New Zealand and the United States. Some observations include:

“New Zealand’s imprisonment rate is seventh highest in the OECD, just behind Mexico. We imprison 155 people per 100,000 population, while three quarters of OECD countries sit at 140 per 100,000, according to Statistics New Zealand. The United States’ rate is highest, at 701 per 100,000, and Iceland’s rate is lowest at 37 per 100,000.”

Right on Crime is also mentioned as having a lasting impact on prison numbers across the nation. As Kim Workman, the founder of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, stated:

“As a result of a movement started by prominent US conservatives called ‘Right on Crime’, about 19 states have reduced prison numbers over the past two to three years.”

Click here to read this article

ROC signatory Kevin Kane talks to NPR

Signatory to the Right on Crime statement of principles and President of the Pelican Institute Kevin Kane talks to NPR about Louisiana’s criminal justice system.

“It is a growing consensus on the right that this is the direction we want to be going. Most people will point to, ‘Well, it’s saving money, and that’s all conservatives care about.’ But I think it goes beyond that.”

Click here to read more.

John Malcom’s “The Case For the Smarter Sentencing Act”

John Malcom, Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and Ed Gilbertson and Sherry Lindberg Gilbertson Senior Legal Fellow at the The Heritage Foundation, authors “The Case For the Smarter Sentencing Act” for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Click here to view the article.

J.C. Watts: Oklahoma must think outside the cell

J.C. Watts, Right on Crime signatory, chairman of the J.C. Watts Companies, and former representative of Oklahoma’s Fourth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, authored an article for Tulsa World on why the Sooner state’s criminal justice system is ripe for reform.

“As Oklahoma considers reopening prisons to accommodate a burgeoning inmate population, the time is ripe for state leaders to apply their principles of limited government and personal responsibility to criminal justice reform.” Click here to read more.

In Illinois Legislature, A Culture Change On Criminal Sentencing

ROC policy analyst Derek Cohen discusses the changing climate of Illinois’ criminal justice system with NPR’s “Northern Public Radio.”

“Prison is for the people that need to be incapacitated while they receive rehabilitation or while they receive their punishment…It’s almost a case of: it took Nixon to go to China, (and) it took Texas to say this needs to stop right now.”