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.”

Prisons will always be necessary, but they have diminishing returns. We must be both tough and smart, recognizing that incarceration is not the most cost-effective public safety strategy for many nonviolent offenders. In fact, some states that have reduced incarceration the most have seen the greatest drop in crime. From 2000 to 2007, New York’s crime rate has dropped twice as much as Florida’s --but New York’s incarceration rate actually fell 16 percent, while the Florida’s increased by 16 percent. As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani demonstrated, accountable, data-driven policing strategies can do much to prevent and deter crime.

Some states have already begun reforms. For example, in 2005, tough-on-crime Texas offered local probation departments a new share of funding for caseload reduction and enhanced supervision and treatment, if they implemented swift, commensurate sanctions for violations and targeted a 10 percent reduction in revocations to prison. Nearly all participating departments reduced new crimes and revocations by strengthening supervision.

In 2007, Texas avoided spending $2 billion to build and operate new prisons by expanding community-based programs that hold nonviolent offenders accountable, such as drug courts, intermediate sanctions facilities, and mandatory treatment interventions for mentally ill offenders. Since Texas began these reforms in 2005, the crime rate has dropped 10 percent, hitting its lowest point since 1973.

Last year, South Carolina’s legislature decided to reserve costly prison beds for dangerous criminals, while punishing low-risk, nonviolent offenders through cheaper community supervision programs. The result: $175 million in prison construction savings this year and $60 million in operating costs savings over the next several years.

In December 2010, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Ed Meese, former “Drug Czar” Bill Bennett and more than a dozen other notable conservatives joined to launch Right on Crime – an initiative that urges states to cut costs and crime by applying truly conservative values.

The Right on Crime initiative advances six key principles. First, the criminal justice system must be held accountable for its results. Second, the victim’s conception of justice, public safety, and the offender’s risk for future criminal conduct must be prioritized when determining punishment. Third, the corrections system must emphasize personal responsibility, work, restitution, community service, and treatment.

Fourth, we must harness the power of families, charities, faith-based groups, and communities to reform amenable offenders. Fifth, policies must align incentives with our goals of public safety, victim compensation and satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness. Finally, criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is blameworthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to grow government and undermine economic freedom.

Conservatives fought for limited government and won. Now, we have the opportunity to cut costs and reduce crime by applying conservative principles to guide reform within the criminal justice system.


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.