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December 15, 2010

"Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches

I am pleased to be able to blog about an amazing and very important new group put together by movement conservatives to work on criminal justice issues, Right On Crime.  The group appears to be the brainchild of folks like Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and Edwin Meese, who are the first three names listed on this Statement of Principles from the ROC group.

Though lots can and should be said about the what is driving this group, I view its development as a direct result of the recent election of lots of new Republican governors facing lots of overcrowded prisons and budget deficits.  (I speculated on this development in a post titled When and how will state GOP leaders start cutting expensive criminal justice programming? a few days after November's election results.)  Tellingly, a top item on the ROC website right now is this posttitled "Reading Material For [Ohio] Governor-Elect Kasich."

Here is the start of ROC's Statement of Principles (which are signed by more than a dozen notable and politically powerful conservatives):

As members of the nation’s conservative movement, we strongly support constitutionally limited government, transparency, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise.  We believe public safety is a core responsibility of government because the establishment of a well-functioning criminal justice system enforces order and respect for every person’s right to property and life, and ensures that liberty does not lead to license.

Conservatives correctly insist that government services be evaluated on whether they produce the best possible results at the lowest possible cost, but too often this lens of accountability has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government.  As such, corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets — trailing only Medicaid.

Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending.  That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety.  A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender.  And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders — making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.

Applying the following conservative principles to criminal justice policy is vital to achieving a cost-effective system that protects citizens, restores victims, and reforms wrongdoers.

Regular readers know that I have long been wondering and complaining about the fact that many conservatives, while often complaining about the inefficacies of government programs, have "too often" failed to focus "as much on public safety policies as other areas of government." Thus, I am extraordinarily pleased that this potent new group is going to start playing a role in breaking down the polarizing politics that often derail what strike me as very sensible (and "conservative") modern sentencing and correction reform efforts.

Everyone should spend some time at RightOnCrime.com, which is claiming now to be "the one-stop source for conservative ideas on criminal justice."  The site already has lots of useful content that can and should be utilized ASAP by criminal justice litigants as well as by policy-makers.  (I am hopeful, though not confident, that ROC might start filing amicus briefs in important sentencing/corrections cases in addition to doing policy work and advocacy.)  I know I now will be making the ROC blog a daily visit.

Some recent and older related posts on the modern politics of sentencing issues:

December 15, 2010 at 10:38 AM | Permalink


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It’s interesting that neither Gingrich nor Meese took this line when they were actually in power, and able to do something about it.

I take no issue with Norquist, who has never held a government position, and as far as I know, has been intellectually consistent on this issue.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Dec 15, 2010 11:34:13 AM

Actually this was the brainchild of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative, state-level think tank.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 15, 2010 12:57:32 PM

This shows that the right as well as the left can oversell the promise of rehabilitation.

Rehab programs are notoriously ineffective. Even the highly motivated can find change difficult. Broken homes produce children that lack the discipline and/or the ability to delay gratification needed to finish a job training program or start a career from an entry level position.

It can happen but the public should not be mislead that we have discovered an untapped panacea.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 15, 2010 1:45:54 PM

MJS, you clearly didn't listen to their conference call since you've utterly mischaracterized the "Right on Crime" stance.

Ironically, their main point was that given high recidivism rates, the CURRENT system is "notoriously ineffective." Any other government program with more than a 50% failure rate, they rightly pointed out, would come under relentless fire from fiscal conservatives, and our failed mass incarceration strategy shouldn't get a pass either.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 15, 2010 3:27:45 PM

This is truly amazing - conservatives being sensible on criminal justice issues. Huge.

Posted by: somebody | Dec 15, 2010 3:37:09 PM

1. Newt Gingrich??? My goodness, next the Left will be enlisting Karl Rove, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Although mjs has it nailed about rehabilitation, I'm glad -- I guess -- to see that Newt, formerly viewed by the Left as Satan himself, can be, as it were, "rehabilitated" -- at least when useful to a project favored by liberals.

If we can punish criminals and secure public safety for less money, I'm all for it, as anyone would be. Of course that's a big if. The rate of recidivism is not zero. When we put criminals back on the street, there's going to be more crime. This is not exactly rocket science, and is irrefutably borne out by the statistics.

What I would like to see, then, is a study of BOTH the costs of imprisonment, AND the costs, in terms of increased crime, that early release will bring about. Anyone object to such as study?

2. I suspect that three things are going on here as far as conservative support for non-incarceration goes.

First, conservatives see the debt bomb getting ready to explode and are frantic to do something, anything, to defuse it. So they're willing to put a lot on the table (unlike liberals, who want to keep entitlements as the Sacred Cow of politics and, indeed, add to them, see, e.g., Obamacare). The test of liberal sincerity will be their first serious proposal to significantly cut entitlement spending, which is by far the greatest source of the debt problem. I don't think I'll be holding my breath.

Second, conservatives distrust the government, and particularly Holder's DOJ, and believe that it will take a pass on club-wielding "poll watchers" while going after businessmen and white collar types with, for example, a revised honest services statute (not to mention a whole bunch of other stuff). As I have pointed out on Crime and Consequences, in Part IV of my blog on the Skilling argument, http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2010/01/the-honest-services-argument-a.html, business in this country has more than a few problems with honesty, and those generally friendly to it may be getting concerned about increased regulatory enforcement under the guise, and with the force, of criminal law.

Third, to the extent conservatives are better off than average, they tend to live and work in places where crime is a minor problem, if it exists at all. Therefore, while ideologically they are aligned with crime victims, they don't viscerally feel it. If inmates are released early, they may subconsciously view it as somebody else's problem.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 15, 2010 3:54:33 PM

Grits: I reviewed one of their feature pieces from 11/22/10 on reducing the recidivism rate.

I invite you to read this piece and tell me what was mischaracterized.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 15, 2010 5:17:34 PM


The effectiveness of the current system can not be judged unless there is agreement as its' goals/expectations. Most of us learned in the 70's that forced rehabilitation does not work. Since that time we have trimmed our expectations and have come to realize that incapacitation is the only achievable, realistic, goal.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 15, 2010 5:33:21 PM

Bill, who involved in this project is the representative of "the Left" that's recruiting all these movement conservatives? Please, name names. Who is the puppetmaster pulling Grover Norquist's marionette strings? Inquiring minds want to know.

MJS, things you "learned in the 70s" may not be universally applicable for the rest of time. Think disco.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 15, 2010 6:13:29 PM

BTW, Bill would like to see "a study of BOTH the costs of imprisonment, AND the costs, in terms of increased crime." In fact, that work has been done by a Texan named Bill Spelman (see here). His conclusion:

"Estimates vary widely, but the marginal prison bed seems to prevent somewhere between two and seven crimes, which saves potential victims between $4,000 and $19,000 per year.

"But note the details: If each prison bed reduces costs by no more than $19,000, but costs us $20,000 to $40,000, then do we need this many beds? Clearly not, and it's not (too) difficult to use current estimates of the crime-control effectiveness of prison, the costs of crime to victims and nonvictims, and the costs of prison to show that we overshot the mark sometime in the early 1990s. Enormous cutbacks - reductions of 50% or more in the prison popoulation - are not difficult to justify and would probably save the US public billions of dollars earch year. Certainly there is little economic justification for continuing to build."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 15, 2010 6:54:03 PM

There is another way to reduce crime. That way is to reduce the number of life style issues that are considered crimes. If the behavior is not a crime we would not have to employ agents and law enforcement to set up stings and arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate the people engaging in the behavior.

Posted by: beth | Dec 16, 2010 12:46:48 AM

Spelman's calculations underestimate the cost of crimes to victims.

I ran the numbers from the source he cited and got much higher figures. So I wrote to him and asked him to clarify his calculations. He wrote back and said it had been awhile since he did it but asked if I would send him my calculations. I did and asked him to let me know if he thought I had erred. He never answered.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Dec 16, 2010 1:18:23 PM

Kent, Spelman cited an array of sources for cost to victims, which is why he gave a range and not a single number. So it seems unlikely you "ran the numbers from the source he cited" since you don't seem to grok that there wasn't just one. Perhaps that's why he didn't bother responding.

If you don't like his numbers, perhaps you can point to other peer-reviewed studies that reached different conclusions?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 16, 2010 2:52:15 PM

I don't understand why mass can't change laws here thats why jails are full my man got 6 he has to do 4 of it the judges are so hard here and don't give them a chance to make anything out of there life mass hole never changes anything but keep putting them in so taxes can go to prisons when its needed somewhere else roads making jobs for people so any new laws going to be passed for mass for jails or not

Posted by: rosemarie | Jun 19, 2013 8:28:47 PM

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