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
Marc Levin Testifies on Criminal Justice Reform Successes in Tennessee
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 […]:: Read More
Texas’ Seven Lessons for Alabama on Prison Reform
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 […]:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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…:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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 […]:: Read More
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