Monday, June 10, 2013

Politicizing Prison Reform

A Conservative Case For Prison Reform:

CONSERVATIVES should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs. Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.

But it’s not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.  
So far, so good. But then there's this:
These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform. 
Why? Because conservatives were more outrageously "get tough on crime" back in the 80's and the 90's, and now feel a bit of buyer's remorse? That hardly sets up "credibility" on the issue. Not to mention, so-called liberals are just as guilty of the imprisonment binge of the 80's and 90's as conservatives. It was a bi-partisan wave of stupid that put us in the current bind we are in today.
The United States now has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners. Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate — everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole — was less than half that: 1 in every 77 adults. 
That should read: "When Ronald Reagan became president..." because the prison population and incarceration rates doubled during the "war on drugs" 1980's, then doubled again under Clinton during the 1990's. 
The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985. It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Conservatives should be leading the way by asking tough questions about the expansion in prison spending over the past three decades.

Increased spending has not improved effectiveness. More than 40 percent of ex-convicts return to prison within three years of release; in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. 

Too many offenders leave prisons unprepared to re-enter society. They don’t get and keep jobs. The solution lies not only inside prisons but also with more effective community supervision systems using new technologies, drug tests and counseling programs. We should also require ex-convicts to either hold a job or perform community service. This approach works to turn offenders from tax burdens into taxpayers who can pay restitution to their victims and are capable of contributing child support. 
This is all true, but again, the problem is that the community corrections program mentioned above were the first to be cut and eliminated during the Great Recession. The author would do well to counsel his fellow conservative governors to restore some of the billions in funding that were sliced during the past five years. 

As I've mentioned time and again on this blog since 2007, corrections budgets were cut, community corrections programs were cut, and some prisons were even closed. But not one inmate in the U.S. left prison early because of the recession. Those in prisons that were closed were merely consolidated to other prisons, double and triple bunked in the process, and now are in even worse shape than before. 

As this great article in yesterday's Atlantic points out, the abuse and mistreatment of inmates that has surfaced in U.S. prisons during the past five years, namely in southern prisons where budget cutbacks were worse, is only just now coming to light. And while this is more problematic among mentally ill inmates, the point is that we've decimated rehabilitative programs over the past 30 years, including the last five years. Rhetoric is cheap. Put your money where your mouth is.
Right on Crime exemplifies the big-picture conservative approach to this issue. It focuses on community-based programs rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentencing policies and prison expansion. Using free-market and Christian principles, conservatives have an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice as an alternative to government-knows-best programs that are failing prisoners and the society into which they are released.

These principles work. In the past several years, there has been a dramatic shift on crime and punishment policy across the country. It really started in Texas in 2007. The state said no to building eight more prisons and began to shift nonviolent offenders from state prison into alternatives, by strengthening probation and parole supervision and treatment. Texas was able to avert nearly $2 billion in projected corrections spending increases, and its crime rate is declining. At the same time, the state’s parole failures have dropped by 39 percent. 
Of course, crime rates have plunged to historic new lows everywhere, including those states that didn't pass any reforms. In fact, the crime rate in the U.S. today is the same as it was in 1968, and yet we have 2 million people behind bars today, but back then only about 200,000.
Since then more than a dozen states have made significant changes to their sentencing and corrections laws, including Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ohio. Much of the focus has been on shortening or even eliminating prison time for the lowest-risk, nonviolent offenders and reinvesting the savings in more effective options.
The key phrase there is "reinvest savings," which is a conservative euphemism for "spend money elsewhere." 

I know I should be jumping up and down in joy, welcoming all-comers, be they conservative or liberal, to the prison reform table. But my hesitancy is borne of watching crime and punishment become politicized (and bastardized) during the 80's and 90's. My first reaction whenever anyone of any political or ideological affiliation starts with the "we're better or have more credibility about it than you do" rhetoric is to cringe. It's exactly that sort of partisan chest-thumping that got us into the mess we're in today.

But the optimist in me holds out hope, I suppose. Whatever you want to call it, Left on Crime, Right on Crime, Whatevs on Crime...if you are serious about getting Smart on Crime, then welcome to the table. Let's put our money where our mouths are, restore community-based corrections, and get the low-level, non-violent people who don't belong in prison the hell out of there.

Cross Posted to: The Cranky Sociologists

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