*This column is co-authored by Senator Michael Hough
Donald Trump has adopted “law and order” as a main theme for his campaign. He makes it clear that his main concern is violent crime. Violent, dangerous criminals should be in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent. However, the net of criminal law encompasses much more than violent crimes.
Roughly half of the inmates in federal lock-ups are drug offenders. Lest you think these are “kingpins” only eleven percent are “major traffickers.”The rest are small fish, who are expensive to house in prison, and they are easily replaced by others looking for a way to support their drug habit.
Federal prisons have grown from 25,000 prisoners in the early 80’s to over 190,000 today, and costs have ballooned from $1billion then to almost $7billion. The Bureau of Prisons now consumes over 25 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, squeezing out money that should go to fighting terrorism.
It has been announced there are over 800 open terrorism cases in all of the 50 states, but only enough agents to put full-time surveillance on less than 40 cases. That tells us that our priorities are misplaced. Locking up low-level street dealers seems a lot less of a priority than spending the money on more agents to catch terrorists. Most of these low-level drug offenses should have never resulted in federal charges in the first place and are best left to state level prosecutors to deal with.
In addition to low-level drug couriers, prosecutors are “net widening”, filing criminal charges for actions that used to be handled in civil proceedings. Should we imprison lobster fishermen who put their catch in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, or an orchid grower who mislabels a parcel, or a couple who fills in a puddle on their property miles from the nearest body of water?
Yes, all those people ended up in prison. Why? Prisons are for people we are afraid of, not mad at.
Over the last several decades “law and order” has morphed into sending too many people to prison, violent or not. Conservatives are increasingly frustrated as our failing justice system is expensive to taxpayers and in human costs. It also fails at its most important function of changing the behavior of inmates: forty percent will be back in prison within three years. The skills a low-risk offender learns to survive inside prison makes them more dangerous when they are released. If a non-violent offender is imprisoned with a murderer or rapist, who do you think leaves prison more like the other?
Fortunately, conservative leaders in the states are applying our principles of public safety, limited government, accountability, and fiscal discipline to the criminal justice system. The costs of prisons have been rising faster than any portion of state budgets except Medicaid, and conservative legislators have concluded that we aren’t getting all of the public safety that we are paying for.
They found it is counterproductive to send low-level offenders to prison. It not only costs the taxpayers more than a college education, but they come out of prison more likely to commit more crimes than those punished and supervised in the community. By reserving prison space for violent and career criminals, while strengthening probation and other alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders, states are reducing imprisonment and crime, and saving a lot of money in the process.
Take “Tough on Crime” Texas for example. In 2007, Texas scrapped plans to build more prisons, and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment. Since then, the state has cut its inmate population, closed three prison facilities, and saved over $2 Billion. Most importantly, violent crime rates in Texas are lower than they’ve been since 1968.
South Carolina followed with serious reforms in 2010, toughening penalties for violent criminals while creating alternatives for lower-level lawbreakers, who made up half of their prison population. Recidivism rates are much improved and the state has been able to close two prisons and saved millions of dollars. Blue States have followed course, and last year Maryland increased penalties for murderers and major drug traffickers, while lessening incarceration for drug users and providing treatment instead.
Over 30 states including Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, South Dakota and Alaska have joined them. They each have made conservative reforms to their criminal justice systems. They have shown that by applying the growing body of evidence about how to effectively reduce recidivism, we can cut crime and spending, hold offenders accountable for their actions, and keep neighborhoods safe.
As Eli Lehrer wrote in the Weekly Standard, criminal justice reform is “perhaps the most important conservative domestic policy initiative in decades.” We hope that if Mr. Trump is elected he will look to the criminal justice reforms conservatives have enacted in the states. That is a proven way to achieve law and order.
Michael Hough (R-Frederick) is a State Senator in Maryland, and is Senior Policy Advisor at the Faith and Freedom Coalition.