Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

The Right-wing Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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The newly launched touts itself as “the one-stop source for conservative ideas about criminal justice.” A project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in collaboration with Pat Nolan’s Prison Fellowship, the site calls for greater accountability, transparency, and cost-effectiveness in the criminal justice system and a reduced reliance on incarceration. Among the signers of the site’s “Statement of Principles” are Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Ed Meese, former “Drug Czar” Asa Hutchinson, and Bush’s former faith-based programs czar John DiIulio.

Here are some excerpts from the website’s portal on prisons:

One out of every one hundred adults in America is incarcerated, a total population of approximately 2.3 million. By contrast, according to a report published in The Economist, the number of imprisoned adults in America in 1970 was only one out of every 400. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 23% of the world’s reported prisoners. It is not clear, however, that these high rates of imprisonment are leading to safer communities. …

For this benefit, Americans are paying dearly – between $18,000 and $50,000 per prisoner per year depending upon the state. …

The Conservative Solution

• Understand that to be considered “successful,” a prison must reduce recidivism among inmates.

• Increase the use of custodial supervision alternatives such as probation and parole. In many cases, these programs can also be linked to mandatory drug addiction treatment and mental health counseling that would prevent recidivism. States’ daily prison costs average nearly $79.00 per day, compared to less than $3.50 per day for probation.

• Consider geriatric release programs when appropriate. Approximately 200,000 American prisoners are over the age of fifty. The cost of incarcerating them is particularly high because of their increased health care needs in old age, and their presence has turned some prisons into de facto nursing homes for felons – all funded by taxpayer.

• Consider eliminating many mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws remove all discretion from judges who are the most intimately familiar with the facts of a case and who are well-positioned to know which defendants need to be in prison because they threaten public safety and which defendants would in fact not benefit from prison time.

• For those instances when prisons are necessary, explore private prison options. A study by The Reason Foundation indicated that private prisons offer cost savings of 10 to 15 percent compared to state-operated facilities. By including an incentive in private corrections contracts for lowering recidivism and the flexibility to innovate, private facilities could potentially not just save money but also compete to develop the most cost-effective recidivism reduction programming.

I would have strong reservations about some of the website’s proposed prison reforms (especially the optimism about privatization and the uncritical approach to mandatory drug and mental health treatment). But all things considered, I am glad to see a self-billed “conservative” campaign calling for the elimination of mandatory minimums and geriatric release — it’s monumental progress over what the likes of Newt Gingrich were saying about criminal justice policy 20 years ago — and I agree with Doug Berman that the site has lots of useful content. I also agree with one of the commenters on Berman’s blog that it would have been nice for Gingrich, Meese, et al. to have taken this line “when they were actually in power, and able to do something about it,” but better late than never, I suppose.

UPDATE: I should add the caveat that I certainly don’t blame the GOP alone for the 1990s tough-on-crime mania. Bill Clinton was terrible on criminal justice issues. But that would be another post.


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