Of Prisons and Patronage

Several commentators have taken Sen. Dick Durbin to task this week for his conflicting tweets on prisons. On one hand, the Illinois senator rightly expressed concern about increasing prison populations; in another tweet, however, he praised ballooning spending on prisons as Keynesian ‘stimulus packages’ for the local economy. Derek Cohen, policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, addressed the larger issues in The Hill, arguing that cutting costs goes hand-in-hand with more effective criminal justice policies.

Arresting prison population growth while keeping the public safe is one of a few issues on which Congress is showing bipartisan agreement. Academics, practitioners and politicians from all across the political spectrum have highlighted meaningful ways federal law and corrections policy can be reformed at no detriment to public safety…. Federal prison overcrowding can be greatly diminished, if not eliminated, with sensible criminal justice reform…. Opening facilities for the sake of jobs is unsustainable fiscal and criminal justice policy.

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Norquist & Monson: Let’s Reserve Costly Prison Beds for Dangerous Offenders

Utah is embarking on an effort to reform its criminal justice system by convening a Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Writing in Deseret News, Right on Crime signatories Grover Norquist and Derek Monson addressed the importance of the state’s newly-convened Commission. As the authors make clear, this is a positive first step towards criminal justice reforms that increase public safety while cutting costs associated with incarceration—similar to reforms implemented in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and other states. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Monson is policy director at the Sutherland Institute in Utah.

As the economy continues to sputter, Utah should continue to heed the practical wisdom of the frugal family and tighten its belt. There can be no sacred cows in the budget.

One area of spending that has traditionally been “off limits” for cuts — the prison system — can no longer escape examination. Utah’s growing prison population, which currently costs state taxpayers more than $250 million annually, is projected to add an additional 2,700 prison beds in the next two decades. If that increase would make us safer, it would be worth it.

But many of these additional beds are not for dangerous and serious offenders. In fact, Utah is sending more nonviolent offenders to prison than it did a decade ago and keeping them behind bars for longer periods of time. This includes a steep increase in female offenders as well as probationers sent to prison for “technical violations” of the terms of their supervision rather than for committing a new crime. In other words, many of those we choose to send to prison (or back to prison) are low-risk, nonviolent offenders.

This is costly and counterproductive. Research shows that low-level offenders often leave prison more dangerous than when they entered.

As conservatives, we pride ourselves on being tough on crime, but we also must be tough on criminal justice spending. The question underlying every tax dollar spent on corrections should be: Is this making the public safer?

We support cost-effective approaches that strengthen families, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety while keeping punishments reasonably in line with the seriousness of the crime committed. While prisons most certainly play an essential role in keeping serious criminals behind bars, it makes no sense for low-level offenders to occupy expensive prison beds when there are proven less costly ways to supervise them in the community without hindering public safety.

Across the nation, other states have faced the same dramatic increases in prison costs, which are now the second-fastest-growing item in state budgets behind only Medicaid. Several of these states have found innovative ways to cut corrections spending while maintaining public safety. Texas, for instance, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment, with impressive results: Crime rates are at their lowest since 1968, and the falling inmate population enabled Texas to close three prisons, avoiding $3 billion in prison costs.

States like Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota have adopted similar reforms that reduce prison populations and corrections costs while improving public safety, allowing them to reinvest some of the savings into programs proven to cut crime and reduce recidivism.

Most importantly, these reforms are allowing states to provide those who have made poor choices in their past a genuine opportunity to turn their lives around, reform themselves and become productive members of society.

And Utah is up next. Last week, a coalition including Gov. Gary Herbert, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Attorney General Sean Reyes embarked on a process to make smarter public safety decisions that will save on taxpayer spending. They have called on the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to examine the state’s criminal justice system and develop policies proven to cut crime and criminal justice spending.

As signatories to the national Right on Crime movement, we are conservative leaders working to apply our conservative principles to the criminal justice system. As such, we are pleased that Utah is joining other states in demanding more cost-effective approaches to public safety, and we wholeheartedly support the efforts of Utah’s leadership to create a more effective criminal justice system.

Utah has an exceptional history and tradition of industry, personal responsibility and support for essential, self-governing institutions, such as faith and the family. It is time to apply these principles to the criminal justice system. We are eager to see CCJJ’s policy recommendations in the coming months and look forward to smarter taxpayer investments, safer communities and stronger families for Utah.

 This article originally appeared in Desert News.

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Rick Perry: The Success of Texas’ Criminal Justice Reforms

In a speech at the annual RedState Gathering in Fort Worth, Gov. Rick Perry mentioned the common-sense, conservative criminal justice reforms that have done so much to lower crime in his state. The governor acknowledged the efforts of former Former Texas House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden in promoting the key prison and sentencing reforms that would come to form Right on Crime’s policy agenda.

At the same conference, Madden– now a senior fellow at the Right on Crime campaign– spoke with ROC senior policy analyst Vikrant Reddy about the need for principled, conservative reform in the states.

While Texas still has the nation’s fourth highest adult incarceration rate, an increased emphasis on policies that are both tough and smart has enabled the state to turn the tide and reduce crime while controlling costs to taxpayers. (Find out more about the Texas success story on crime here.)

 

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AG Holder Hesitant on Assessments

In an exclusive interview granted to Time Magazine, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed strong concerns about the equity of empirical risk assessments used to determine how a sentence will be carried out.  His concern is that “static” risk factors (those that are largely unchangeable through rehabilitation like educational attainment and employment history) unduly influence these assessment will lead to young, black males being unfairly sentenced in comparison to more socially successful white collar criminals.

Mr. Holder’s suspicion that empirical risk assessments may exacerbate (or, to give a charitable reading, perpetuate) racial inequality in the criminal justice system is not entirely without merit.  Earlier risk assessment instruments relied heavily on static factors; those which are immutable, unmalleable, and in sum less predictive than those that can be addressed.  Items like criminal history have been suggested to be emblematic of distal racial bias, though do not carry enough weight in the calculation of today’s third and fourth generation for this to be so.

What has been shown to predict recidivism are elements that are largely changeable, such as associating with criminal peers or harboring antisocial thoughts.  These items are more likely to capture the risk of an individual reoffending.  Race, on the other hand, has almost no independent predictive validity.

Perhaps Mr. Holder’s most puzzling comment is of how these risk factors influence sentencing.  Perhaps he’s referring to the body of research that suggests that an individual detained before the trial phase are more likely to be found guilty and receive a custodial sanction, though this has been shown to have little correlation with race.  The adoption of these instruments allows low risk offenders of ALL races and ethnicities to be monitored in the community sooner.

There is little substance or logic to the concerns about “data-driven sentencing” expressed by the sitting Attorney General.  Actuarial risk does not determine guilt.  Actuarial risk does not determine the sentence.  Actuarial risk is used to determine what the most effective, cost-efficient modality for the offender to complete his or her sentence under at the least cost to public safety.

Risk assessment instruments rout out the specter of latent biases in lieu of actuarial probability.  What little interrelation there may be between criminality, risk factors, and race independently is spurious and pales in comparison to the manifold benefit these tools afford those who use them.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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