Politics & Policy

Conservative Principles and Prison

Let’s stand for limited government, federal accountability, and reduced spending.

When it comes to education, pensions, health care, Social Security, and hundreds of other government functions, conservatives are a beacon for fiscal responsibility, accountability, and limited government — the very principles that have made this country great. However, when it comes to criminal-justice spending, the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality forces conservatives to ignore these fundamental principles.

With nearly every state budget strained by the economic crisis, it is critical that conservatives begin to stand up for criminal-justice policies that ensure the public’s safety in a cost-effective manner.

In the 1970s, conservatives focused on the urgent need to rein in an epidemic of violent street crime that many argued was a result of the misguided academic theories of the 1960s that advocated treatment and rehabilitation of criminals. The idea among “experts” was that rehabilitation worked on everyone — even violent criminals. Within a decade, American streets were overrun with released and reoffending criminals, and the academic theories had been debunked.

Unfortunately, the ideological pendulum then swung too far in the other direction. Conservative reformers brandishing the phrase “tough on crime” tackled misconduct by incarcerating more people and giving them longer sentences. The new conventional wisdom was that rehabilitation never worked — so why even try?

This attitude led America to our current situation. Today, 2.3 million people sit in U.S. prisons — nearly one in every 100 adult Americans. America has the highest known incarceration rate in the world. Many of the incarcerated are guilty of non-violent crimes and afflicted with drug or mental-health problems, for which they receive little treatment, even when full rehabilitation is possible.

As the size of the prison system has grown over the last three decades, its cost has quadrupled. Corrections spending is currently among the fastest growing line items in state budgets.

This extensive and expensive incarceration regime is worthwhile to the extent that it is the most cost-effective means of protecting the public; however, research indicates we have long since reached the point of diminishing returns, and numerous case studies can be used as evidence that more prison spending does not necessarily provide greater public safety than alternative approaches.

Consider Texas, a state legendary for being “tough on crime.” When the Lone Star State’s incarceration rates were cut by 8 percent, the crime rate actually dropped by 6 percent. Texas did not simply release the prisoners, however. Instead, it placed them under community supervision, in drug courts, and in short-term intermediate sanctions and treatment facilities. Moreover, it linked the funding of the supervision programs to their ability to reduce the number of probationers who returned to prison. These strategies saved Texas $2 billion on prison construction. Does this mean Texas has gotten “soft on crime”? Certainly not. The Texas crime rate has actually dropped to its lowest level since 1973.

The lesson from Texas is that conservatives can push reforms that both keep Americans safe and save money, but only if we return to conservative principles of local control, performance-based funding, and free-market innovation.

State and local governments must be empowered to move toward rehabilitation programs that are best for their communities. Hawaii, for example, pioneered the HOPE Court, a community court that constantly drug-tests offenders and informs them that they will be immediately incarcerated if they fail. In the HOPE Court, positive drug screens have been reduced by 91 percent, and revocations and new arrests have been cut by two-thirds.

Further, corrections funding must be performance-based. Additional funding for corrections agencies must be given as a reward for reducing recidivism rates, not simply on the basis of the volume of prisoners they house. Similarly, prisons and community corrections programs should be evaluated on the number of discharged offenders who are less of a threat to public safety than when they entered.

Conservative principles don’t have to change to make the criminal-justice system successful, but the stance conservative leaders take must. There is no reason that conservatives should be tied to the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” strategy; rather, we must stand for the very principles of limited government, federal accountability, and reduced spending that our forefathers effectively deployed. I ask my fellow conservative leaders to reconsider the “tough on crime” approach so that we can cost-effectively increase public safety.

— Grover Norquist is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform and a signer of the Right on Crime Statement of Principles. 


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