Here is a partial transcript from a recent Michael Medved radio show, where he interviewed signatory Grover Norquist about our work on criminal justice reform. They discussed the conservative way forward for prison reform, and ensuring that taxpayers get the best deal from the system, all while reducing crime and recidivism.
Medved: So are we handling our justice system appropriately? Most conservatives instinctively say “yeah, lock them up.” But there’s an interesting group of people called Right on Crime, they are working with the prison fellowship, which is an organization that I deeply respect that is the legacy of the late, great Chuck Colson and they’re saying “Wait a minute that applying conservative values to criminal justice doesn’t always mean locking people up forever.” Grover Norquist is one of the people along with the Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, the former attorney general Ed Meese, and when he was governor of California, President Reagan. Grover it is great to speak you, Grover of course is the president of Americans for Tax Reform. The basic message from your group, Right on Crime would be?
Norquist: I was certainly one of those people for many years in seventies and eighties assumed that the proper response of Conservatives to crime was longer sentences, less parole, probation, lock him up throw away the key and somebody else will then manage the problem from here. The judges that prosecutors the prison guards; I would go off and do other things, try and cut taxes and reduce the size and scope of the stated areas. Government should be in the business of punishing criminals, let’s go focus on getting the government to stop doing the things it ought not to do. It turns out that you can’t just have things over the experts necessarily and that we need to look at how much money we spend on prison, how long we want certain people to be imprisoned, what is the benefit of the seventy five -year-old bank robber imprison another five years how do we reduce crime while trying to be is not disruptive as possible the families and communities. Punishing criminals but not so in a way that is overly expensive or more destructive than necessary, everything from ankle bracelets to house arrests more serious control in terms of probation and parole and people call in and you know where they are with GPS.
There are less expensive ways to control potentially bad people than spending, in California, fifty thousand dollars a year to keep them in prison. Taking a look at some of those questions: what should be federal crimes? Which should be state crimes? A number us work together in DC, just sitting around a table every once in a while saying “Are there better ways to do this?” Because every time some crime gets it way in the newspaper, remember carjacking a number years ago, clearly a state crime, somebody steals a car, in Kansas, Kansas can deal with it. But because it was the newspapers for several weeks some congressmen suddenly decided to make carjacking a federal crime. There are four thousand federal crimes that can send you to prison. The first thing we learned as kids, I’m not sure I know most of the fifty thousand federal laws that can send you to jail, not fine you for not filling out paperwork or something, but real life felonies send you jail. Does it really make sense to have four thousand four thousand federal crimes? And if not, how should we look at this stuff. So conservatives taking a look at criminal justice issues is one because it’s partly our fault for ignoring it, not spending the time and effort in that field but it’s also necessary for conservatives to leave because liberals have no credibility on the subject when some liberal from Vermont says “I’ve got an idea, let’s has fewer people in prison and have there for less time.” You look at him and go “Yeah but you don’t care how so why we listen to you?” Conservatives such as Ed Meese and other political leaders who spent their lives being serious about combating crime, punishing criminals, keeping the streets safe. If they come up and say – Here’s something they tried in Texas and the great thing about Right on Crime is that the Texas Public Policy Foundation sort of the CATO, heritage, A.E.I. of Texas has put a lot of these ideas forward and they’re working in Texas and when I’ve testified in Florida and talk to legislators in Oklahoma and Arkansas and Missouri and I say “Here’s what work in Texas,” people’s eyes open up and their ears perk up and they go “Oh…
Medved: You don’t think of Texas as a soft on crime state? Speaking of Texas, one of the things that I think is fairly well known is that Texas leads the country in terms of imposition of the death penalty. Does your organization, I don’t know the answer to this, Do you take a position for or against the death penalty?
Norquist: I’m actually strong supporter of the death penalty for people who murder people. That strikes me as perfectly reasonable, just, and fair, I’m for it. I do know some other people, for religious reasons, oppose to the death penalty even though they would support life in prison and so on. But this is not a group that says let’s become moderate or liberal; this is how you effectively fight crime?
Medved: Let’s get to the situation in California, because some the California prison system, which of course is the nation’s largest, required by some court order to release ninety thousand prisoners?”
Norquist: They are in the business of releasing prisoners because some judge said some, what I’d rather do is have some more though go into who you put in the first place.
Medved: And again because some of the people they are releasing now, that Jerry Brown is getting ready to release are violent criminals. You live in Washington, DC, Grover, we’re up here closer to California. Generally I think it’s nice if people from California skip that state and come to Washington State. I’m not so sure about some of these newly released violent offenders. You don’t necessarily, as part of this prison reform, want sort of a wholesale forgiveness or reduction of sentences, what you are talking about is sorting through the individual cases more effectively to try to understand what works.
Norquist: To stay in prison for longer periods, some people for less longer.
Medved: Would you agree with me that the lovely Castro brothers of Cleveland, Ohio should be looking at prison for the rest of their lives?
Norquist: Yes. And I’ve always been irritated by people who say “You are innocent until proven guilty.” You’re either innocent or guilty. It is the state that is required to treat you as if you innocent until you’re found guilty. People are innocent or guilty; it’s not like the conviction. But the Government has to say, “We will treat you as if you are innocent until you are found guilty.” I, however, am not the government and is sure seems to me that they are guilty.
Medved: what about the rehabilitation aspect of this, I know that this in part cosponsored with prison fellowship. They have found that one element of rehabilitation is often prevented by government which is the injection of religious faith and rebuilding of personality.
Norquist: That’s something that prison fellowship has been worked on for many years across the state; they have a series of issues trying to keep prisoners in touch with families. As well as allowing them to have practiced their faith and have people of faith speak which them in prison. So there are a number of ways you can keep connected with wives and children and relatives, you’re more likely to have something to go back to, more likely to be well rounded and have friends other than criminals you meet in prison. This is where Bush sort of had something where he talked about successive faith based efforts.
Medved: Well there’s no doubt at particularly about prison rehabilitation. So what do we do to invest our money in the criminal justice system more effectively? That’s what we are talking about. Right now we spend a great deal of money particularly at the state level on criminal justice. How do we save money and get better results? We are on with Grover Norquist, Grover of course president of Americans for Tax Reform no one has been more ferocious in trying to protect American tax payers from the intrusions of the Federal Government and the burdens placed upon us by taxations of various kinds and from various directions, and right now he’s actually talking about better use of the money that Government does take in or borrow. Better use in what respect is the criminal justice system. He’s part of the new movement Right on Crime that features a lot of prominent conservatives who are trying to inject some new ideas about the justice system that will end up helping the tax payer and help promote public safety at the same time. Grover, do you have some sense because I have been unable to find a realistic number on how much we spend total on our criminal justice system, federal, state and local?
Norquist: That gets sort of a knowable number I don’t have here right in front of me. It has been increasing at the state level, which is why we’ve been getting more attention for this idea. How do we spend more wisely on fighting Crime? Crime is going down, as oppose to the eighties where crime was going up and people said do something and often, unfortunately, was just throw money at it and not rethink or reform anything. Because even which crime going down, the amount of money being spent at the state level is becoming a larger and larger size of people’s state budget and so there is an effort, a willingness to talk about reform.
Medved: Let’s go to Bill in Minneapolis.
Bill: Yeah, Michael, I appreciate you taking my call. Just to fill you in on two numbers Grover, California spends twelve million dollars every single day, I’m from the state of Minnesota, we spend six hundred and sixteen thousand dollars every single day to keep people incarcerated but the idea that you had in the seventies, excuse me for believing the idea to get soft on crime right now is a little bit disingenuous. I think it’s more related to your stance on taxes. It was a wrongheaded policy back then to get tough of crime without looking at the future outcome of the what do you do once you have all these people incarcerated and then after the incarcerated and they’re basically unemployable in today’s. Now we’re paying scads of social society dollars to pay to keep them alive after they can’t get a job. Now you’re saying “I don’t want to pay any taxes and let’s look at the prison situation differently. It just feels really disingenuous to me.
Norquist: What I started off by saying is look, I bought into the narrative that the solution of crime is to grab everybody and lock them up for as long as possible. And there was a position in the eighties that said if you could deliver another six hundred thousand people in prison, those are the six hundred thousand people creating most of the crimes and that would collapse fine. We did, we put those guys and more.
Medved: and it worked. That’s the point.
Bill: That was in the eighties. Didn’t crime spike in the nineties?
Medved: No, crime has gone down dramatically for twenty years, particularly gun crime by the way.
Bill: I would argue that crime spiked in the early nineties and has since gone down, based on statistics that I think. The city that I live in, Minneapolis, ’92 ’93 we were called “Murderapolis” we set a new record for crime rates. Thankfully crime has gone down, but not as a result of incarcerating a bunch of people in the eighties.
Medved: Here is one of those things. James Q. Wilson of Harvard and UCLA, may he rest in peace, wrote about this stuff brilliantly. And the overall trend in criminal activity in the United States has been down dramatically, the peak years were the seventies. Crime did not spike in the nineties, crime has been going down for a long time. And I think everybody agrees is that part of that is we do incarcerate so many people. One thing you know is that it’s tough to create crime or perpetrate crime against people if you’re sitting in the stir, if you’re in jail.
Norquist: I think we’re agreeing here that when you incarcerate more bad guys you reduce crime because some of those people were offenders frequently. Get one of those guys off the street and save money, however not everybody in prison would’ve created twelve or fifty crimes a year. Some of them needed to be slapped, metaphorically, on the side of the head and “hey, knock it off” but does that have to be a five years in prison, twenty years? What would it take to help somebody turn around. What they shifted to is that the first time you broke parole they put you in prison for the weekend. You do it again they put you in prison for a weekend or a week and suddenly people could go “Oh” and you could teach people to not do that in a couple of days or a week. It doesn’t take five years. And what you teach them, if you yell at them six times, and they think “I guess it’s not against the rules since they just yell at me” and then we throw them in prison for five years and wonder “What was that all about?”
Medved: we are on with Grover Norquist about the criminal justice system and yes in that context we will bring you the word on for those of you who are just breathlessly expecting this. Grover we were talking off the air and you made me a bit bemused and perplexed by all of the cable television attention to the Jodie Arias case. They are about to announce a verdict and let people know what it is. I know Jeffery Toobin little bit who’s now the legal correspondent for CNN and Jeffrey has a very strong academic and legal background smart guys written some pretty good books. Big liberal but here is Jeffrey they send him out to Phoenix to cover the verdict in this incredibly sleazy trial. I mean really is this why people I imagine you don’t envy of the folks who are out there in phoenix covering this right now. I wish they could paint over this whole thing. Let us go to our callers on the budget and saving money on the budget with the criminal justice system Jut one thing, do you agree with me that it probably is a misallocations of funds to spend a lot of money on keeping people, or anyone in prison just for the use of marijuana?
Norquist: that’s not on my list to put people in prison for.
Medved: Good, let’s go to Jeremy in Burbank, California.
Jeremy: We used to have chain gangs and prisoners who made license plates and contributed to society, unless I’m mistaken, that’s an element that is missing from our justice system and incarceration system and that feels like it could be something that could offset the cost. Also there are things that are offered to prisoners like televisions. The more I hear about what is available to prisoners, it is personally punishment, and there is a piece of it in terms of rehabilitating but what about the reducing costs there?
Norquist: I think it makes sense for prisoners to be working, work is good for you and if you get out of practice for a few years, you are unlikely to get up in the morning and show up at work. Organized Labor thought they were competing with their workers and would make this illegal and we have enough labor shortages that I think we could put enough prisoners to work and not really interfere with the real economy. But have people learning skills, producing something, covering their own cost of incarceration and give something back to the people they’ve earned.
Medved: Let’s go to Bob in San Diego, California
Bob: Twenty years ago I heard a professor at think his last name was Mahler in San Diego state who wrote a book about prison reform and prison situation one of the things he said was doing a program in New York prisons where he was education prisoners for their masters degree and the rest of them wait while he was doing would like thirteen percent and he was sad to say that Bill Clinton cut that program and they came back to California to teach. I don’t know if you ever heard of that.
Norquist: No, there have been some very successful programs with young people with all sorts of different efforts allowed faith-based and I’m not sure you can take a successful program and all of a sudden give government money and decide you can do ten of them I think that’s one of the things that Bush had a little problem with it you can replicate some faith-based things that are based on strong personalities and either secularize some things and just say stupendous it doesn’t necessarily happen that way where you find those opportunities where is working like to keep it going.