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January 29, 2011

"Conservatives latch onto prison reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this terrific article in today's Los Angeles Times.  Here are excerpts:

Reduced sentences for drug crimes.  More job training and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders.  Expanded alternatives to doing hard time. In the not-too-distant past, conservatives might have derided those concepts as mushy-headed liberalism — the essence of "soft on crime."  Nowadays, these same ideas are central to a strategy being packaged as "conservative criminal justice reform," and have rolled out in right-leaning states around the country in an effort to rein in budget-busting corrections costs.

Encouraged by the recent success of reform efforts in Republican-dominated Texas — where prison population growth has slowed and crime is down — conservative leaders elsewhere have embraced their own versions of the strategy.  South Carolina adopted a similar reform package last year.  Republican governors are backing proposals in Louisiana and Indiana.

The about-face might feel dramatic to those who remember the get-tough policies that many conservatives embraced in the 1980s and '90s: In Texas, Republican Clayton Williams ran his unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial campaign with a focus on doubling prison space and having first-time drug offenders "bustin' rocks" in military-style prison camps.

Now, with most states suffering from nightmare budget crises, many conservatives have acknowledged that hard-line strategies, while partially contributing to a drop in crime, have also added to fiscal havoc.  Corrections is now the second-fastest growing spending category for states, behind Medicaid, costing $50 billion annually and accounting for 1 of every 14 discretionary dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States.

That crisis affects both parties, and state Democratic leaders have also been looking for ways to reduce prison populations.  But it is conservatives who have been working most conspicuously to square their new strategies with their philosophical beliefs — and sell them to followers long accustomed to a lock-'em-up message.

Much of that work is being done by a new advocacy group called Right on Crime, which has been endorsed by conservative luminaries such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.  The group has identified 21 states engaged in some aspect of what they consider to be conservative reform, including California.

On its website, the group concedes that the "incarceration-focused" strategies of old filled jails with nonviolent offenders and bloated prison budgets, while failing to prevent many convicts from returning to crime when they got out.... The right's embrace of ideas long espoused by nonpartisan and liberal reform groups has its own distinct flavor, focusing on prudent government spending more than social justice, and emphasizing the continuing need to punish serious criminals....  

There are other conservative elements to the argument, including a criticism of the "overcriminalization" of business and a push for more incentive-based policies, like a 2009 California plan that pays cash bonuses to county probation agencies that lower recidivism.

Reform in Texas has been relatively well received among conservatives, in part because of the results, and in part because of a good sales job. Texas is among a number of states that have received guidance from the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project, which promises that reforms will be data-driven and not affect public safety.

In March, two research companies polled 1,200 U.S. voters and conducted focus groups for Pew, then suggested "effective messages" for lawmakers interested in reform. Among the tips: Focus on the success in Texas, given its "strong law-and-order reputation." And avoid arguments based on "racial justice concerns."

As detailed in prior posts linked below, I have been following this still-developing story for quite some time.  There are two especially important "insider" points about the "Right on Crime movement" not stressed in this otherwise effective piece: (1) after the 2010 election, Republicans are in firm governing control in many states with the biggest prison budget problems, and thus this movement helps provide political cover for those Republican leaders who (sensibly?) prefer cost-cutting prison reforms to tax increases, and (2) Newt Gingrich has taken up this issue at the same time he seems to be talking serious about making a run for Republican nomination for President in 2012. 

These two "insider" points are especially important because, in my mind, they minimize the prospect of this movement being only a short-term phenomenon for only a few libertarian-minded conservatives.  Budget problems for red (and blue) states with large prison populations are not going away any time soon, and the political profile of Newt Gingrich does not seem likely to fade in the next few election cycles.

Meanwhile, as highlighted by this new New York Times article, which is headlined "As Republicans Resist Closing Prisons, Cuomo Is Said to Scale Back Plan," the Right on Crime movement has not yet transformed the usual left-right political debates over criminal justice reform in all regions of the country.  Like politics generally, all prison reform politics is ultimately local.

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

January 29, 2011 at 09:50 AM | Permalink


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"Conservatives latch onto prison reform"

When are liberals going to latch onto entitlement reform, which is the only place the big money can be found?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2011 5:01:53 PM

Oh Bill, always fighting the political good fight. Have you noticed Tea Party and Conservatives are not holding their campaign promises regarding jobs vreation and growth? Hows it feel to jump on board with a bunch of liars and hypocrites? They are more intereted in their base's issues of choice (abortion, hopeless health care repeal) than what they said they were gonna do if elected. You can go ahead and beat the drum on Liberals and entitlements... but your political heroes are doing nothing but appeasing their base and ignoring campaign promises, and the majority of American's needs. But hey, at least we got that tax break extension for the Wealthy! It only took a month after Obama's election for Teaparty to form, so I say its about time for someone to call BS on the conservatards and teabaggers for lying to get elected. You bought into their BS hook line and sinker, and you make a great whipping boy for parroting their slogans and platform. Keep complaining about entitlements.. the real issue is honesty.

Posted by: tbucket | Jan 29, 2011 5:25:44 PM

tbucket --

You are of course free to quote any post of mine in which I endorsed the Tea Party.

I'll wait.

Meanwhile, I note you don't even come close to disputing the fact that entitlements, rather than prison spending, are where the big money is to be found.

P.S. Although I do not purport to be an expert on the subject, voting for Obamacare repeal was, I believe, a principal if not the principal item the Tea Partiers "said they were gonna do if elected."

P.P.S. "But hey, at least we got that tax break extension for the Wealthy!"

Actually, that passed Congress in the lameduck session, before any of the newly elected Tea Partiers took office, and yes, President Obama signed it. And here all this time I thought he had a veto. Goodness, gracious.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2011 8:16:10 PM

The Pew Center officials, and those conservative politicians should publish their home addresses. I want to open halfway houses for released prisoners on their streets. Also, I want to put up or buy entire apartment buildings specializing in sex offenders with money who cannot find residences anywhere else. All on the streets of these conservative reformers.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 29, 2011 10:40:32 PM

No sentencing reform and legalization will not take care of the deficit, but they still must be part of the process.

I don't think the big entitlements can be addresses - social security and medicare - without also talking about government employee salaries, pensions, and medical benefits.

Posted by: beth | Jan 29, 2011 10:45:47 PM

You can thank that noted liberal George Bush for Medicare Part D, which will end up funneling about a trillion dollars into pharmaceutical companies' pockets over the next 10 years. And ask any Republican how much they're willing to cut from defense, the single biggest budget item.

Remember all the conservatives yelling about the deficit when Bush was running it through the roof? No?

Posted by: Cheqster | Jan 30, 2011 2:47:58 PM

Cheqster --

"You can thank that noted liberal George Bush for Medicare Part D, which will end up funneling about a trillion dollars into pharmaceutical companies' pockets over the next 10 years."

We have just concluded two years in which the Democrats controlled both Houses by lopsided margins, and the Presidency. At any time they could have repealed Medicare Part D. Instead, they dramatically ADDED to entitlements by passing a program they say will add health coverage to 30,000,000 more people. The projected debt for next year is a mind-blowing 1.5 TRILLION dollars, dwarfing anything Bush botched.

How did you miss these facts?

But of course the whole thing is just your partisan diversion. The subject of the thread Doug put up is saving money through prison reform. Like your fellow liberal extremist tbucket, you don't even claim, much less show, that the only place we can save big money is not prison downsizing but entitlement downsizing.

Nice try, though.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 30, 2011 7:42:41 PM

Hilarious. It's not the Republicans' fault for creating the problem; it's the Democrats' fault for not cleaning it up.

As it happens, I agree that entitlement reform is necessary. And defense reform as well. But you won't hear any of your Republican bosses talking about that.

Posted by: Cheqster | Jan 31, 2011 10:11:31 AM

Didn't know that is was the Republicans who created Medicare to start with. What revisionist history did you get that from? It was, of course, a Lyndon Johnson "Great Society" program -- a program that came complete with solemn and, we now see, flagrantly false promises of solvency in the future.


"As it happens, I agree that entitlement reform is necessary."

Thanks for the admission, although I have to observe that there is no sentient person who doesn't know this. Cuts in discretionary spending, including (as a small sliver) corrections spending, are utterly inadequate as a source to head off bankruptcy. Entitlement spending is the budget eater, and THAT is going to have to be reformed, massively and quick.

"And defense reform as well. But you won't hear any of your Republican bosses talking about that."

Actually, the article Doug posted is CHOCK FULL of Republicans talking about it, both at the state and national levels.

On the other hand, wanna tell me where Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have been proposing entitlement reform? If I recall correctly, when the President's Budget Commission came out with its recommendations, which did include some modest but significant entitlement reforms, Pelosi screechingly rejected it in five minutes. Am I wrong about that?

The truth of it, which you certainly know but still refuse to acknowledge, is that because entitlement spending consumes vastly more dollars than corrections spending, it is simply unavoidable that any major savings -- the kind of savings desperately needed -- will have to come from the former, not the latter. Why not quit with the partisan games and just admit it?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 31, 2011 1:57:31 PM

Also, please don't forget that a lot of that whopping debt was created by Bush in 4Q 2008, which is recorded in 2009 numbers because of where the end of the fiscal year falls. The mid and long range impact of the health care reform is a net benefit according to the CBO. Finally, please stop pointing to the large majorities in the House and Senate w/o acknowledging the filibustering done by the Republicans to prevent anything at all from passing.

You are correct that you cannot address the deficit w/o dealing with entitlement reforms, MediCare and MediCaid especially. However, you cannot address those programs without addressing health care reform.

Posted by: Ala JD | Jan 31, 2011 2:02:23 PM

We must have read different articles. I don't see anything about Republicans willing to cut the defense budget, which is currently the largest single budget item.

And I'll ask you to stop ascribing positions to me that I don't have. I never said that Pelosi and Reid proposed entitlement reform. I don't "refuse to acknowledge" that entitlement reform is necessary. In fact, I said just the opposite. But it's much easier to win an argument when you get to make up the other side's positions, right?

Posted by: Cheqster | Jan 31, 2011 2:32:26 PM

Ala JD --

"Finally, please stop pointing to the large majorities in the House and Senate w/o acknowledging the filibustering done by the Republicans to prevent anything at all from passing."

Glad to hear Obamacare was prevented from passing by a filibuster. Oh, wait! It passed after all! And that was because, until Scott Brown's election late in the game, the Dems had a FILIBUSTER-PROOF MAJORITY and could pass anything they wanted.

Of course the real reason it passed was the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase, which were the de facto bribes needed to bring over wavering Democratic Senators.

Finally, let me ask you if you actually, truly believe that extending healthcare to 30,000,000 more people paid for by, inter alia, alleged future cutbacks in "waste, fraud and abuse" in Medicare, is actually going to save money. The CBO estimate, like its original and wildly erroneous Medicare estimate of many years ago, is based on absurdly optimisitic, out-year assumptions of exactly the laughable kind that have led us to the brink of bankruptcy.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 31, 2011 2:54:45 PM

Cheqster --

"We must have read different articles. I don't see anything about Republicans willing to cut the defense budget, which is currently the largest single budget item."

This is completely disingenuous and you know it. Entitlement spending, whether listed as a "single budget item" or not, absolutely dwarfs the defense budget. Do you deny it?

"And I'll ask you to stop ascribing positions to me that I don't have. I never said that Pelosi and Reid proposed entitlement reform."

Of course I never said you said it -- that is flat-out made up. What I actually did, in response to your asking about where were the Republicans asking for defense cuts, was ask -- ASK -- you this: "...wanna tell me where Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have been proposing entitlement reform?"

Since when is that ascribing a position to you?

You keep evading the central point. The lowering of prison costs will be less than a drop in the bucket in the quest to get the deficit under control. BY FAR, the bulk of it will have to come from entitlement cuts.

Time to quit the fancy dance and just admit it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 31, 2011 3:07:25 PM

When adjustments are made to medicare and social security, government employee pensions and health care will have to be addressed. No one in the private sector will be happy to see government employees retiring at 50, 55, or even 60 with excellent pensions and health care.

Yes closing prisons may be a drop in the bucket, but every government dollar counts for me when I send in my quarterly taxes. I do not want to pay for non-violent men and women to be housed year after year at my expense.

Probably more money can be saved by merging FBI, DEA, and ATF. Duplication is rampant. Perhaps law enforcement could spend dollars investigating crime and spend fewer resources manufacturing it through sting operations. Just a thought.

Posted by: beth | Jan 31, 2011 4:23:53 PM

beth --

You are absolutely correct that government retirement, and, indeed, existing employment contracts, are going to have to be significantly reformed along with massive cutbacks to entitlement spending.

My generation (perhaps yours as well) has been living high on the hog spending our children's money and now the chickens are coming home. It's a scandal. I have offered right on this blog to take half what I am due in Social Security if there is, in fact, significant spending reform.

Our parents underspent their incomes so that my generation could have more. My generation has repaid this sacrifice by indulging itself to the hilt. It did this on money borrowed against the future. So now our children will have, not what we were given, but a gargantuan hole to dig out of.

As I say, it's a scandal.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 31, 2011 5:27:53 PM

Bill -

Here's what I said: "I don't see anything about Republicans willing to cut the defense budget, which is currently the largest single budget item."

Defense is about 22%, the single largest category of expenditures. Social Security is around 20%, Medicare/Medicaid about 19%. Do you have different figures? There's nothing "disingenuous" about being accurate.

And although this is now going badly off-topic, when you accused me of "refusing to acknowledge" that entitlement reform is necessary after I had already said that entitlement reform is necessary could be considered distorting my position on the issue.

One more, time, Bill: I agree that entitlement reform is necessary. OK? I don't know how else I can say this so you'll understand.

Posted by: Cheqster | Jan 31, 2011 6:07:33 PM

The Republican Auditor General of Pennsylvania has also pushed for sentencing reform. Even though it is easy to play on the fear of recidivism, the numbers about the effectiveness of treatment are surprisingly good. In Michigan, our immediate past Director of the Michigan of the Michigan Department of Corrections was named the Corrections Director of the year for her smart sizing program.

Stuart Friedman
(Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney; Past Chair Prison & Corrections Section State Bar)

Posted by: Stuart Friedman | Jan 31, 2011 8:54:14 PM

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