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Jailbreak Conservatives

by Eli Lehrer

Sometimes the answer is fewer prisons

To hear state representative Jerry Madden describe it, his effort to shrink Texas’s sprawling, 170,000-inmate prison system was pretty simple. “I figured we could either speed people coming out, or slow them down going in,” says the hulking, always-smiling engineer-turned-legislator. “We chose to slow them down going in, and that’s saved $2 billion for taxpayers.” Madden’s formula for reforming America’s second-largest state-prison system has had a great influence on conservative Republicans around the country.

As recently as 15 years ago, conservatives almost uniformly called for building more prisons, increasing criminal penalties, extending the length of prison sentences, and eliminating programs that allowed offenders to remain outside of penitentiaries. Now that’s changed, and leaders with sterling right-of-center credentials have embraced new thinking about crime and prisons that picks up on many concerns once more closely associated with the Left. The new approach, organized around a loose coalition called Right on Crime, emphasizes stricter parole and probation in return for shorter sentences, the reform of sentencing practices, diverting low-level offenders away from prison, involving victims in offenders’ lives, in-prison drug-treatment and literacy programs, faith-based rehabilitation, a reduction in the overall number of criminal laws, and a slower pace of prison construction.

Conservatives, in short, have come to realize that ever-increasing prison populations and ever-harsher penalties are wasting taxpayers’ money and destroying lives. While some of these new policies may seem relatively “soft on crime,” a look at the results, and at the circumstances that gave rise to them, reveals an embrace of conservative principles, not an abandonment of them.       

There’s no doubt that the nation’s corrections systems have changed in the past several decades, and changed most drastically under conservative leaders. According to the Pew Center on the States, in 2009, for the first time since 1972, America’s state-prison-inmate population (about 1.4 million) declined slightly. Reform efforts have taken place in every part of the country, mostly with leadership from Republicans popular with the party’s conservative base. Beyond Texas’s $2 billion reduction in its corrections budget, South Carolina under former governor Mark Sanford trimmed about $241 million from the state corrections budget, while conservative governors including Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal have announced sweeping initiatives to change sentencing laws, reform probation, and stem the growth of prison systems. Even in California, where harsh sentencing laws and powerful corrections unions created the nation’s biggest prison system, the total inmate count declined 2.5 percent between 2008 and 2009 as total prison spending fell. During the same period, only one of the ten largest states, Pennsylvania, saw its jail and prison population grow faster than its overall population.

Newly elected governors including Kansas’s Sam Brownback and Florida’s Rick Scott have ambitious plans to move their states in the same direction. And conservative heavyweights such as Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and former drug czar Bill Bennett have signed on to a Right on Crime statement of principles endorsing the new direction in criminal justice.

By and large, conservatives calling for corrections reform have made a convincing case that the project comports with efforts to shrink government while continuing to carry out its core functions. “Prisons are just another government spending program; we should treat them like that,” says Pat Nolan of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry. Nolan, a former minority leader of the California assembly who spent 25 months in federal prison after a bribery sting operation, has not always taken this view. “When I was a legislator, I was tough on bureaucracy, whether it was CalTrans or CalEPA. But when it came to the prison system, I handed them a blank check,” he says.

Conservative reformers today are not falling prey to the canard that criminals are victims of society. Rather, a crime rate that has fallen every year but one since 1994 has made it possible for them to retreat from the reflexive “lock ’em up” mentality that once helped win elections. “The focus is on the victims, not the offenders,” says Marc Levin, who coordinates the Right on Crime Coalition through the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Punishment should matter, and certain people need to be locked up. We don’t deny that there was a point when states needed more prisons — it’s just that the point has passed.”

Different states have accomplished similar goals in different ways. South Carolina achieved its reforms with sweeping legislative packages that eliminated sentencing disparities between people charged with possession of crack and powder cocaine, changed community-supervision requirements, and worked to reduce recidivism among released convicts. Other states, such as Texas, have taken incremental approaches involving dozens of different actions through the legislative and executive branches. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels’s proposed reforms to sentencing policies — which would vastly increase judges’ discretion in imposing sentences, cut some penalties outright, and give new incentives to localities to divert low-level offenders — may be the most sweeping serious proposal on the table. But not all reforms have been limited to big legislative moves: Mississippi’s Haley Barbour has concentrated on improving corrections systems through budget measures, executive orders, administrative reforms, and symbolic actions such as commuting the sentences of two sisters given life in prison for an armed robbery that netted $11. (The sisters had become a cause célèbre for the NAACP and dozens of other groups, and were released on the condition that one donate a kidney to save the other’s life.)

If conservatism is truly what Russell Kirk described as the “negation of ideology,” then it ought to evolve with the facts on the ground and should not pursue unchanging policies under changing circumstances. For all the good that it has done in reducing crime, America’s ever-growing prison industry is an instrument of the state that deserves real suspicion. Efforts to stop squandering money and human potential on less-effective approaches to criminal justice deserve the Right’s support.

– Mr. Lehrer is vice president for Washington, D.C., operations at the Heartland Institute.

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