The Corner

Criminal-Justice Reform and Federal Funding

If you need evidence of how much conservative thinking about crime has changed over the past few decades, look no further than the crowd gathered for last week’s CPAC panel on criminal-justice reform, featuring such stalwart conservatives as Grover Norquist and Texas governor Rick Perry

Rather than focusing solely on locking people up (still a good thing to do in many cases), conservatives have taken the lead in efforts to encourage businesses to hire more ex-offenders and improve drug treatment behind bars. Thus far, most of these efforts have been focused at the state level, since states enforce the great bulk of criminal laws and imprison most inmates.

While this approach has served the burgeoning movement well, in the long run, conservative criminal-justice reformers will need to grapple with federal policy, as well. Thanks to roughly a dozen federal grant programs of various scopes and sizes, federal policies influence nearly every aspect of local police and corrections practice. But given conservatives’ general skepticism about almost any federal role in local law enforcement (a skepticism I share), few on the right have made constructive proposals for reform at the national level.

This is a mistake. There are some federal law-enforcement programs — such as ones involving border security, technological development, and anti-terrorism efforts — that it makes sense for conservatives to support. In other areas, existing federal programs encourage localities to do the wrong things, with funds tied to locking up more offenders and making more arrests. These incentives lead to more spending and bigger government.

Like much of what government does, the inefficient and misguided programs have proven nearly impossible to kill, so ignoring them really isn’t an option. Instead, the Right should look to craft its own reform program, while building on to what’s good that has come from the left.

In particular, New York University’s Brennan Center has given a lot of deep thought to ways to fix the largest single police-facing federal program, the Edward A. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. Instead of simply rewarding police for making more arrests and issuing more warrants, the Brennan Center team proposes rewarding localities for reducing violent crime, diverting non-violent drug offenders to treatment rather than prison, and otherwise policing smarter. These ideas, packaged under the rubric of “success-oriented funding,” make a lot of sense.

There’s reason to think the federal government should vastly reduce its role in criminal justice. But if federal programs are to continue, we have to stop them from doing harm. The Brennan Center’s proposals offer one potential path for moving in the right direction.

Eli Lehrer — Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He oversees R Street’s central headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as its field offices in ...

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