Priority Issues: Prisons

I. The Issue

Prisons serve a critical role in society. In many cases – particularly cases of violent crime – the best way to handle criminal behavior is to incapacitate criminals by incarcerating them. Prisons are supremely important, but they are also a supremely expensive government program, and thus prison systems must be held to the highest standards of accountability.

II. The Impact

One out of every one hundred adults in America is incarcerated, a total population of approximately 2.3 million. By contrast, according to a report published in The Economist, the number of imprisoned adults in America in 1970 was only one out of every 400. The United States has 5% of the world's population, but 23% of the world's reported prisoners. It is not clear, however, that these high rates of imprisonment are leading to safer communities. One study by two professors at Purdue University and Rutgers University has estimated that were we to increase incarceration by another ten percent, the subsequent reduction in crime would be only 0.5%.  The state of Florida provides a useful example.  Over the past thirteen years, the proportion of prisoners who were incarcerated for committing non-violent crimes rose by 189%.  By contrast, the proportion of inmates who committed violent crimes dropped by 28%.

For this benefit, Americans are paying dearly – between $18,000 and $50,000 per prisoner per year depending upon the state. The nation is also reaching a point where it simply does not have the capacity for so much incarceration. In 2009, the number of federal inmates rose by 3.4%, and federal prisons are now 60% over capacity.

These figures are not markers of success. Americans do not measure the success of welfare programs by maximizing the number of people who collect welfare checks. Instead success is evaluated by counting how many people are able to get off welfare. Why not apply the same evaluation to prisons?

III. The Conservative Solution

• Understand that to be considered “successful,” a prison must reduce recidivism among inmates.

• Increase the use of custodial supervision alternatives such as probation and parole for nonviolent offenders. In many cases, these programs can also be linked to mandatory drug addiction treatment and mental health counseling that would prevent recidivism. States' daily prison costs average nearly $79.00 per day, compared to less than $3.50 per day for probation.

• Consider geriatric release programs when appropriate. Approximately 200,000 American prisoners are over the age of fifty. The cost of incarcerating them is particularly high because of their increased health care needs in old age, and their presence has turned some prisons into de facto nursing homes for felons – all funded by taxpayer.

• Consider eliminating many mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent offenses. These laws remove all discretion from judges who are the most intimately familiar with the facts of a case and who are well-positioned to know which defendants need to be in prison because they threaten public safety and which defendants would in fact not benefit from prison time.

• For those instances when prisons are necessary, explore private prison options. A study by The Reason Foundation indicated that private prisons offer cost savings of 10 to 15 percent compared to state-operated facilities. By including an incentive in private corrections contracts for lowering recidivism and the flexibility to innovate, private facilities could potentially not just save money but also compete to develop the most cost-effective recidivism reduction programming.

Agenda 2005: A Guide to the Issues by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Aligning Incentives and Goals in the Texas Criminal Justice System by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Alternatives to More Prisons Promote Public Safety, Restorative Outcomes, and Fiscal Responsibility by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

The Case for Further Sentencing Reform in Colorado by the Independence Institute

Controlling Costs and Protecting Public Safety in the Cornhusker State by the Platte Institute

Corrections 2.0: A Proposal to Create a Continuum of Care in Corrections through Public-Private Partnerships by The Reason Foundation and Florida TaxWatch

Criminal Justice Policy in Delaware: Options for Controlling Costs and Protecting Public Safety by the Caesar Rodney Institute

Criminal Justice Policy in New Mexico: Keys to Controlling Costs and Protecting Public Safety by the Rio Grande Foundation

How to Avert another Texas Prison Crowding Crisis by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Mental Illness and the Texas Criminal Justice System by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Peach State Criminal Justice: Controlling Costs, Protecting the Public by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Prescription for Safer Communities by Chuck Colson and Pat Nolan

The Role of Risk Assessment in Enhancing Public Safety and Efficiency in Texas Corrections by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Texas Criminal Justice Reform: Lower Crime, Lower Cost by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Unlocking Competition in Corrections by the Texas Public Policy Foundation

  • WTTW PBS Chicago – Marc Levin Testifies at an Illinois Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee

    Posted in Illinois, Prisons, ROC Blog, Video: September 24, 2014 by Shannon Tracy

    Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin testified at an Illinois State Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee hearing this week. WTTW11 PBS Chicago shares Levin’s testimony specifically related to class 4 felony offenders. He commends the state for the steps already taken and offers advice on lowering recidivism rates by shifting resources to the county […]

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  • Pat Nolan in the Washington Examiner: Looking Back at the Many Costs of the ’94 Crime Bill

    Posted in Prisons, ROC Blog: September 23, 2014 by Right on Crime

    This week, the Washington Examiner published a piece by Pat Nolan, Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation and Right on Crime fellow. It was a look back on the 1994 Crime Bill– a massive omnibus package written by then-Senator Joe Biden and passed with overwhelming Democrat support. Now, […]

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  • Marc Levin Testifies on Criminal Justice Reform Successes in Tennessee

    Posted in Prisons, ROC Blog, Video: September 17, 2014 by David Reaboi

    Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin testified at a Tennessee State Senate hearing entitled, “Criminal Justice Reform: What Other States Have Done.” He described the successful efforts in states like Texas, South Carolina and Georgia, where criminal justice reform enhanced public safety and helped cut costs at the same time. Also providing expert testimony […]

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  • Texas’ Seven Lessons for Alabama on Prison Reform

    Posted in Alabama, Prisons, ROC Blog: August 26, 2014 by Right on Crime

    At AL.com, journalist Wesley Vaughn spoke to Right on Crime Senior Fellow and former Texas House Chairman of Corrections Jerry Madden about Alabama’s urgently-needed prison reforms. “What would Texas do?” That question is what Alabama’s public officials are asking as they prepare to tackle prison reform for the 2015 legislative session. The Texas Model has […]

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  • Of Prisons and Patronage

    Posted in Prisons, ROC Blog: August 21, 2014 by Derek M. Cohen

    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 […]

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

    Posted in Prisons, ROC Blog: August 21, 2014 by Right on Crime

    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 […]

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  • Rick Perry: The Success of Texas’ Criminal Justice Reforms

    Posted in Prisons, ROC Blog, Texas, Video: August 15, 2014 by Right on Crime

    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 […]

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  • AG Holder Hesitant on Assessments

    Posted in Adult Probation, Parole and Re-Entry, Prisons: August 4, 2014 by Derek M. Cohen

    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 […]

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  • Washington Post Recognizes Conservative Criminal Justice Reform, Misses Its History

    Posted in Prisons, ROC Blog: July 31, 2014 by Right on Crime

    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 […]

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  • A New Push for Conservative Reform in California

    Posted in California, Priority Issues, Prisons, ROC Blog, State Initiatives: July 17, 2014 by Vikrant P. Reddy

    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…

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