The Conservative Case for Reform

The defense of society from internal and external threats is a legitimate public good, and public safety is recognized by virtually all Americans as a legitimate use of government power and funds. Americans must ensure that government performs its public safety responsibilities effectively and efficiently.

For too long, however, American conservatives have ceded the intellectual ground on criminal justice. Liberal ideas came to occupy the space, and in many respects, they were misguided ideas.  They often placed the blame for crime upon society rather than upon individuals.  They also failed to effectively monitor many criminal justice programs to determine whether they were truly providing taxpayers with the results commensurate with their cost.  Now, the criminal justice arena is starved for conservative solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders, and lowering costs. Right on Crime makes the case for conservative criminal justice reform. 


Although crime has declined in recent years, more than 10 million violent and property crimes were reported in 2012. Because government exists to secure liberties that can only be enjoyed to the extent there is public safety, state and local policymakers must make fighting crime their top priority, including utilizing prisons to incapacitate violent offenders and career criminals. Prisons are overused, however, when nonviolent offenders who may be safely supervised in the community are given lengthy sentences. Prisons provide diminishing returns when such offenders emerge more disposed to re-offend than when they entered prison.


Nearly 1 in every 100 American adults is in prison or jail. When you add in those on probation or parole, almost 1 in 33 adults is under some type of control by the criminal justice system. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate was 1 in every 77 adults. This represents a significant expansion of government power. By reducing excessive sentence lengths and holding nonviolent offenders accountable through prison alternatives, public safety can often be achieved consistent with a legitimate, but more limited, role for government.


The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion per year, up from $11 billion in the mid-1980s. It has been the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid, and consumes one in every 14 general fund dollars. Conservatives must address runaway spending on prisons just as they do with education and health care, subjecting the same level of skepticism and scrutiny to all expenditures of taxpayers’ funds.


In 2008, Texas probationers paid $45 million in restitution to victims, but prisoners paid less than $500,000 in restitution, fines, and fees. Making victims whole must be prioritized when determining appropriate punishments for offenders. The criminal justice system should be structured to ensure that victims are treated with dignity and respect and that they may participate in the criminal justice process and receive restitution.


With some 5 million offenders on probation or parole, it's critical that the corrections system hold these offenders accountable for their actions by holding a job or performing community service, attending required treatment programs, and staying crime- and drug-free. When the system has real teeth, the results can be dramatic: offenders subject to swift, certain and commensurate sanctions for rule violations in Hawaii’s HOPE program are less than half as likely to be arrested or fail a drug test.


More than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of release, and in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. As Right on Crime signatories Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley have asked, “[i]f two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?” Corrections funding should be partly linked to outcomes and should implement proven strategies along the spectrum between basic probation and prison.


According to National Review, “40 percent of low-income men who father a child out of wedlock have already been in jail or prison by the time their first son or daughter is born.” The family unit is the foundation of society. In a society in which too many young men are incarcerated, marriage rates are depressed and far too many children grow up in single-parent homes. Instead of harming families, the corrections system must harness the power of charities, faith-based groups, and communities to reform offenders and preserve families.


The Constitution lists only three federal crimes, but the number of statutory federal crimes has now swelled to around 4,500. This is to say nothing of the thousands of bizarre state-level crimes, such as the 11 felonies in Texas related to the harvesting of oysters. The explosion of non-traditional criminal laws grows government and undermines economic freedom. Criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is blameworthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to regulate non-fraudulent economic activity involving legal products.


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