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April 1, 2017

"Conservatives Are Leading the Way as States Enact Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended Slate commentary (which is not an April Fool's Day joke). The piece is authored by LawProf Brandon Garrett, and it carries this subheadline: "Can their enthusiasm stop Donald Trump from pushing his backward 'tough on crime' agenda?". Here are excerpts:

The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world, but over the past few years, there’s finally been some progress. Rates of incarceration have finally begun to decline, mostly due to sweeping changes made in progressive states like California, New Jersey, and New York. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, adult incarceration has declined 13 percent since its peak in 2007, from 1 in 100 to 1 in 115.  Of course, this progress is threatened by Donald Trump and his administration: The president has not only promised to reinstate a long-outdated approach to criminal justice, he’s also made Jeff Sessions, who holds similarly antiquated views, his attorney general.  The two of them are preparing a task force to study violent crime — despite the fact that it’s already at historic lows — and are aiming to focus resources on drug cartels and drug use. They seem determined to return the federal government to the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, the height of the war on drugs.

But criminal justice reform is still marching forward—and the momentum is largely coming from conservatives, working in their state governments.  The conservative case for reform is obvious: Spending billions of dollars on prison expansion and lengthy sentences is outdated and ineffective. And the state level is where reform will be the most effective — the majority of people are incarcerated in state systems. Reducing that number helps states balance their budgets, said Lenore Anderson, president of Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform organization that centers on crime victims. “Continued budget problems mean that regardless of who’s in the White House, [criminal justice] is going to continue to be a ripe issue for reform.”...

Texas is one of several red states, along with Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, that has adopted a range of progressive initiatives in the past decade. Texas’ reputation as a gung-ho death penalty state may make its reform efforts a surprise, but in the past decade, fiscal conservatives joined forces with civil libertarians and reduced the state’s incarceration rate by 14 percent.  Part of that was thanks to forensic science and eyewitness identifications reforms that ended up putting fewer people behind bars. And rather than spend a half-billion dollars on building three new prisons, Texas instead invested in rehabilitation and re-entry, which has allowed it to close three prisons and saved billions. Crime has fallen to the lowest levels seen in Texas since 1968.

More than 30 other states have passed justice reinvestment legislation similar to Texas’. These laws divert low-level offenders from prison, use evidence-based risk methods to determine who really needs to be behind bars, reduce penalties for crimes, and aim to make it easier to get work after leaving prison. The cost savings from these reforms is then invested in rehabilitation and mental health and drug treatment, reducing crime even further....

But even with all this progress, a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in people going in won’t change the fact that our prisons are still vastly overstuffed — incarceration has risen 500 percent since the 1970s. Currently, more than half of the state prisoners in the country are serving time for violent crimes. Reducing prison populations to a manageable size must also include a closer look at how we legally define, prosecute, and punish violent crimes....

With Trump in charge, it’s possible that [some] will feel more empowered to push back against the progress that was starting to seem inevitable. The states that go back to this approach will likely see higher incarceration rates, and the costs — both human and fiscal — will fall on the public. But most lawmakers (not to mention the public) seem to have learned that these “tough” approaches failed in every way. We wasted billions to become the world’s leading incarceration nation. Such policies are simply an expensive and self-defeating type of posturing by politicians who value their own self-image over the well-being of the constituents. We already know what type of leader Trump is — let’s hope the state resistance is enough to fight him.

Though I support the sentiments of much of this commentary, I am disappointed that it fails to directly confront the tangible increase in violent crime over the last few years and the various ways in which this increase provides critical fodder for those eager to resist a move away from past "tough and tougher" approaches to crime and punishment. I surmise that AG Sessions and many of those around him sincerely believe crime remains low today only because of the laws, policies and practices of the "tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s," and these folks can and do now readily suggest that recent reforms to these laws, policies and practices may account in large part for recent crime increases. Past crime declines and now recent crime increases will likely lead these folks to persistently resist even the suggestion that a commitment to tough-and-tougher approaches is "self-defeating" in any way. In turn, they will contend that academics and other reformers are far too eager to put the interests of criminals ahead of victims.

April 1, 2017 at 05:24 PM | Permalink


Lawyer protected, privileged, and empowered client costs our economy $billions in damages. Had he been executed at 14, people could still get to work in less than 3 hours. The catastrophe in Atlanta is 100% the fault of the lawyer profession. The lawyer will still be trying to excuse him, and to mitigate his sentencing.

Thank the lawyer for your 3 hour commute, Atlanta.


Posted by: David Behar | Apr 1, 2017 9:45:32 PM

Warning. The dirty left wing traitor organization referenced above, the AP traitors, will be running unauthorized scripts by their advertisers. These will freeze your computer, even if running an i7 chip. This is the most predatory, toxic, disgusting form of predatory advertising and capitalism by left wing hypocrites.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 1, 2017 9:48:38 PM

This is the same recycled message that has been circulating for the last 5 years or so.

"The conservative case for reform is obvious" They don't mention the conservative case for tougher sentences also being obvious and getting us into this mess in the first place.

No mention of the death penalty - apparently that is not outdated, ineffective, expensive or a concern in terms of government power.

Posted by: Paul | Apr 2, 2017 11:02:28 AM

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