We Can Reduce Crime and the Prison Population at the Same Time

After decades of backing tough-on-crime policies, more conservatives are rethinking what it means to be conservative and in favor of criminal justice reforms that don't involve building more prisons and enacting longer prison sentences. Marc Levin of the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation says lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key policies contradict conservative bedrock principles of individual rights, family unity, fiscal discipline, personal accountability and limited government. How did conservatives come to a conclusion that is often tagged as liberal dogma?There has been a shift over the last decade. Certainly, we need to hold offenders accountable, but there was a sixfold increase in incarceration from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s in the U.S. Some of that was necessary, but it also sent nonviolent offenders to prison who didn't need to be there -- people with a drug habit, mental illness. Excessive sentencing also kept people there beyond the point that they could pose any danger to the public. What I like to tell people is that saving money is the appetizer, but the main course is greater public safety -- keeping families together, having more people in the workforce, etc. Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm used to talk about welfare as having more people riding in the wagon instead of pulling the wagon and that we needed more people pulling the wagon. Well, there are 60 million to 70 million Americans with a criminal record, a huge barrier to employment and productivity. People with a criminal record often can't rent an apartment and have other hurdles. If we reduce crime, recidivism and also reduce the number of people incarcerated, then we could have a more prosperous and a freer society. Do I hear an argument for small, limited government? That is the other point. We believe in small government, limited government. Incarceration gives the government complete control over someone. We strongly support drug courts, better probation procedures. But there are people who don't need to be in the criminal justice system to begin with. In Texas, incarceration rates have gone down since 2005, but we still have 150,000 people in prison, 430,000 people on probation, 80,000 people on parole and 70,000 people in county jails. We have roughly 800,000 on correctional control. That is a lot of people whose freedom is limited. There are good reasons in many cases, but we should have the least restriction intervention necessary to ensure public safety. We shouldn't want to use a hammer when we could use a scalpel.  Continue reading...

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