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October 16, 2013

"Three myths about conservatives and criminal justice" ... which are really stories about (slowly) changing modern realities

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this recent FoxNews opinion piece by Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy adviser for Right On Crime. Here are excerpts, after which I explain my addition to the headline:

Over the summer, Americans were embroiled in fierce debates about NSA surveillance, Syria, and — of course — ObamaCare.  Attorney General Eric Holder’s August 12th address on criminal justice reform, however, hardly made a blip on the national radar.

Observers who were surprised by this fundamentally misunderstand conservative views on criminal justice. Indeed, Holder himself quite possibly misunderstands conservative views on the subject. Three bits of conventional wisdom on this topic are completely wrong.

1. The conservative position on criminal justice is simply “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”

Prominent conservatives like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Ed Meese are committed to reducing the incarceration of many nonviolent offenders while also enhancing public safety through effective community corrections and law enforcement.  After Holder’s August policy address, Grover Norquist and Richard Viguerie essentially asked, “What took you so long?”

Increasingly, conservatives argue that prisons are necessary to incapacitate violent and career criminals but sometimes grow excessively large and costly like other government programs.... Conservatives appreciate the role that prison expansion has played in reducing crime, but they also recognize that incarceration has diminishing returns....

Citing recidivism rates of around 66% in some states, Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley observed: “If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?”

2. “Red states” are resistant to criminal justice reform.

In just the last three years, conservative legislatures and governors in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota enacted major reforms to avert future prison growth that redirect some nonviolent offenders to drug courts, electronic monitoring, and strong probation with swift and certain sanctions to promote compliance.

In 2012 and 2013, Georgia’s conservative legislature and Republican governor, Nathan Deal, passed perhaps the nation’s most sweeping adult and juvenile correctional reform bills. In 2011, an important prison reform bill was signed by John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio.

Texas, in particular, is a national reform model. A 2007 legislative estimate projected that over 17,000 new prison beds, at a cost of $2 billion, would be needed in Texas by 2012. State legislators instead expanded community-based options like probation, accountability courts, and proven treatment programs—for a fraction of the cost of prison expansion....

3. Conservative prison reforms are just a response to deficits and will be reversed once budgets are flush again.

Prison reform makes fiscal sense, especially in the wake of a recession that severely tightened state budgets, but this is not the only motivation behind conservative reform efforts. Texas, for example, began its reforms when it enjoyed a budget surplus.

Conservatives are principally concerned with public safety.  Troubling recidivism statistics suggest that some low-level, nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated actually emerge from prison more dangerous than when they entered.  Conservatives want to ensure that non-violent offenders amenable to rehabilitation can resume their lives as law-abiding citizens, productive employees, and responsible parents.

They are particularly concerned about the effect of sentencing policies on families, the bedrock institution of society. Overwhelming social science evidence — and common sense — indicates that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to perform poorly in school, engage in juvenile crime, and be incarcerated themselves.

Addressing this problem means using prison less for some nonviolent offenders and using community supervision more — but tough supervision that requires offenders to provide restitution to their victims, get drug treatment, keep stable jobs, and support their families.

I very much like this op-ed, but it strikes me as neither accurate nor fair to call the quoted claims "myths" as much as prior realities that are slowly changing.  Indeed, the main reason so many "red states" have been leading some of the modern reform movement lately is because of the extreme and dire budget consequences now evidence in the wake of prior "lock 'em up and throw away the key" laws and practices long embraced by conservatives in these red states.

Perhaps the clearest proof that conservatives have been (and still tend to be) fans of the lock'em up approach to criminal justice comes from the latest statistics on state-by-state incarceration rates. This DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics press release about the latest official data on incarceration rates highlights the following telling data:

In 2012, states with the highest imprisonment rates included Louisiana (893 per 100,000 state residents), Mississippi (717 per 100,000 state residents), Alabama (650 per 100,000 state residents), Oklahoma (648 per 100,000 state residents), and Texas (601 p er 100,000 state residents).  Maine had the lowest imprisonment rate among states (145 per 100,000 state residents), followed by Minnesota (184 per 100,000 state residents), and Rhode Island (190 per 100,000 state residents).

Though there are lots of factors other than politics and policies that impact crime and incarceration realities in various states, these data demonstrate it is hardly mythical to believe that conservate policy-makers and opinion leaders have historically (and still today) favor lock'em up approaches to criminal justice.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 16, 2013 at 09:42 AM | Permalink


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| “Perhaps the clearest proof that conservatives have been
(and still tend to be) fans of the lock'em up approach to criminal justice” |

True to an extent, but surer still is that victim-conscious conservatives have been
(and still tend to be) fans of proportional and swift judgment, including execution for murderers.

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 16, 2013 10:06:45 AM

I'm not a fan of execution for for reasons having anything to do with the victim, instead having everything to do with the offender. Criminal offenders have demonstrated that they don't care to live within the very tolerant limits placed on everyone by society and so that burden should be removed from them.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 16, 2013 10:20:35 AM

This opinion piece and my comments have NOTHING to do with the death penalty, and yet the first two comments move to executions. Hmmm.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 16, 2013 10:35:59 AM

1 factor:
• "Maine had the lowest imprisonment rate among states … followed by Minnesota … and Rhode Island."

• Maine had the 2nd highest White rate among states (95.5%) … followed by Minnesota the 8th highest … and Rhode Island 81.4% White rate.

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 16, 2013 3:50:42 PM

If you lock em up and throw away the key you can not get he dead body outta the cell when they croak.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Oct 16, 2013 3:57:41 PM

I wish Newt Gingrich would attend law school . Just 1L, the rest being a waste of time. Then he would understand 10 times more about this subject, and see that matters are 100 times worse than any civilian thinks.

For example, an ultra intelligent law prof with an IQ of 200, has seeing the role of the death penalty as a saver of mony, safety, and nation.

Newt would be old, immune to the cult indoctrination that has destroye?d so many brilliant minds, blinded them to what is self evident even to MR special ed students.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 16, 2013 5:09:34 PM


You can just let the body decompose until you can suck it out with a vacuum cleaner.

The harder part is getting a new inmate into the cell.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 16, 2013 11:35:40 PM

Correlation does not imply causation.

Posted by: C | Oct 17, 2013 5:00:35 PM

C --

"Correlation does not imply causation."

Wrongo. A strong correlation does indeed imply causation; it simply doesn't prove it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 20, 2013 2:49:39 PM

Every scientist and every statistician knows that correlation does not imply causation. Since over 100 years have passed since this fundamental scientific truism was first shown to exist, it is really hard to imagine people still suggest otherwise.

Posted by: C60 | Oct 23, 2013 9:33:03 PM

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