Marc Levin

Along with scores of conservative Republicans, right-of-center values won the 2010 midterm elections, as the principles of limited government, reduced spending and public-sector accountability earned the frustrated public’s support. While conservatives promised to put education, health care, pensions and myriad other government programs under lawmakers’ microscopes, it is also time to scrutinize criminal justice spending.

Since the 1970s, conservatives have upheld the “Tough on Crime” mantra to push back against liberal policies of the 1960s that eschewed personal responsibility in favor of blaming society for criminal behavior and failed to protect the public from dangerous violent offenders. However, the well-intentioned “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach swung the pendulum a bit too far in the other direction insofar as it increasingly was applied to low-risk, nonviolent offenders. This caused state budgets to become heavily burdened by a prison population that expanded in the last few decades 13 times faster than the overall population. Today, one in every 100 adults in America is incarcerated, and one in every 31 is under the control of the corrections system – an area of government that cost taxpayers $68 billion in 2010. This is emblematic of the unsustainable growth in government.

Not only is this system expensive, but it is increasingly ineffective and unaccountable. Of the 700,000 federal and state prisoners released annually, approximately two-thirds will reoffend within three years.

Many inmates enter as nonviolent, low-risk offenders, who pose little threat to society. It hardly benefits public safety to have them mingling with violent criminals and gang leaders in prison. Moreover, former inmates often fail upon release – unable to find employment or reintegrate into their communities. While hardship never excuses criminal behavior, government-imposed barriers to ex-offender employment actually make us less safe. For example, some states prevent ex-offenders from being licensed hair stylists or roofers.

“[T]here are thousands of non-violent offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore,” Texas Governor Rick Perry stated during his 2007 State of the State address. “Let’s focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

Marc Levin

Marc A. Levin is a director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a leader of the Right on Crime initiative.