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February 10, 2011

"Conservative Principles and Prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Grover Norquist at the National Review online.  Here is how it begins along with some additional passages of note:

When it comes to education, pensions, health care, Social Security, and hundreds of other government functions, conservatives are a beacon for fiscal responsibility, accountability, and limited government — the very principles that have made this country great.  However, when it comes to criminal-justice spending, the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality forces conservatives to ignore these fundamental principles.

With nearly every state budget strained by the economic crisis, it is critical that conservatives begin to stand up for criminal-justice policies that ensure the public’s safety in a cost-effective manner....

[An] extensive and expensive incarceration regime is worthwhile to the extent that it is the most cost-effective means of protecting the public; however, research indicates we have long since reached the point of diminishing returns, and numerous case studies can be used as evidence that more prison spending does not necessarily provide greater public safety than alternative approaches.

Consider Texas, a state legendary for being “tough on crime.” When the Lone Star State’s incarceration rates were cut by 8 percent, the crime rate actually dropped by 6 percent. Texas did not simply release the prisoners, however. Instead, it placed them under community supervision, in drug courts, and in short-term intermediate sanctions and treatment facilities. Moreover, it linked the funding of the supervision programs to their ability to reduce the number of probationers who returned to prison. These strategies saved Texas $2 billion on prison construction. Does this mean Texas has gotten “soft on crime”? Certainly not. The Texas crime rate has actually dropped to its lowest level since 1973.

The lesson from Texas is that conservatives can push reforms that both keep Americans safe and save money, but only if we return to conservative principles of local control, performance-based funding, and free-market innovation....

Conservative principles don’t have to change to make the criminal-justice system successful, but the stance conservative leaders take must. There is no reason that conservatives should be tied to the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” strategy; rather, we must stand for the very principles of limited government, federal accountability, and reduced spending that our forefathers effectively deployed. I ask my fellow conservative leaders to reconsider the “tough on crime” approach so that we can cost-effectively increase public safety. 

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

February 10, 2011 at 01:42 PM | Permalink


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Cue Bill: "Until we do away with things like Social Security and Medicare,reducing the cost of the criminal justice system is a waste of time."

Posted by: reader | Feb 10, 2011 2:46:39 PM

Cue reader: I'll be waiting for you to quote my post where I said that we should "do away with" Social Security and Medicare. Somehow I think I'll be waiting a long time.

It is true, however, that the cost of the criminal justice system is a pitance compared with the cost of entitlement programs, and that major savings will have to come primarily from reforming the latter.

Do you disagree? Based on what figures? Ya know, somehow I think I'll be waiting a long time for that answer too.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 10, 2011 3:28:21 PM

Which "entitlement programs" do you mean then? "Entitlement programs" is an awfully broad phrase. Can you be more specific?

Posted by: reader | Feb 10, 2011 4:00:31 PM

reader --

If you actually could read, or cared to, you would understand the difference between "do away with" entitlement programs (which is what you falsely claim I support), and "reform" them, (which is what I actually said, together with, e.g., John Boehner, Barack Obama and the Deficit Commission, along with anyone else who's serious).

P.S. For future reference, I do not answer questions when mine get ignored. I asked you a couple. What is your answer?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 10, 2011 4:20:39 PM

I have witnessed few individuals who have improved emotionally or morally because of a term of incarceration. It would appear that incarceration simply takes a non-violent individual and turns him into a violent criminal. The "tough on crime" crowd often ignores or is incapable of grasping the issues that cause an individual to break our laws.

Posted by: Kevin Mahoney | Feb 10, 2011 10:26:05 PM


You have hit the nail on the head. This is the mandatory minimum madness (MMM).

Years ago, legislators thought that they knew more than judges in effecting the correct punishments, based on a few abhorrent crimes by released prisoners (despite not observing the typical day to day crimes in the US). You see, they thought that all crimes are basicly the same (whether there are real victims or government created victims). Human reasoning was taken out of the sentencing function, much to the joy of law enforcement, prosecutors and other tax payer funded idiots.

Thus was created the Sex Offender Laws. Thus the political mental midgets on the USSC (I wonder how many political IOU's they sold themselve for), made the infamous (Alaska and Connecticut) 2000 rulings that registration was not punative but civil.

How much better would the US be today, and a 3/4 million of its population, if the USSC had used wisdom,(and a true understanding of it's Constitution), to consider if the SO laws were reasonable as they were currently practiced at that time and where this was leading.

But no, now we have more liberty limiting laws like the Adam Walsh Act. (Remember, if SO's can have life, libery and the pursuit of happiness (I know, Declaration of Independence) taken from them, who's next? Where will this end? I want an answer from Bill, where will this end?

Posted by: albeed | Feb 10, 2011 10:59:12 PM

Kevin Mahoney -

"It would appear that incarceration simply takes a non-violent individual and turns him into a violent criminal."

If that were true, it would constitute a weighty argument for extending prison terms. In fact, I very much doubt it's true, and I notice that you furnish not a wisp of documentation. In fact, when non-violent criminals recidivate, it's mostly with non-violent crimes identical or similar to the ones for which they were imprisoned to begin with.

"The 'tough on crime' crowd often ignores or is incapable of grasping the issues that cause an individual to break our laws."

The number one "issue" that causes crime is greed, vastly outstipping everything else. Far behind in second place is lack of empathy for one's fellow creatures. Number three is the feeling that what I want right now is more important than anything else.

I might add the the "criminals are wonderful" crowd often ignores or is incapable of grasping what their clients are up to, and this is only partly because their clients lie to them.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 10, 2011 11:06:44 PM


I posit to you the following: Since your previous post lacked serious documentation, if you request documentation from this, I will provide it at your request.

The number one "issue" that causes crime is greed, vastly outstipping everything else.


The number one issue that causes useless, ineffectual laws is greed by legislators for uneducated votes by BOTH parties, which our founding fathers (Harumph from that man over there!) would not be able to comprehend. These laws have recently favored LE, prosecutors and the judicial functions as they elect legislators with tax payer dollars who make their jobs easier.

Far behind in second place is lack of empathy for one's fellow creatures.


I have witnessed the lack of empathy by LE and legislators for victimless crimes (government honeypots for susceptible but harmless citizens) Hell even the prosecutor and judge were backed into a corner by the one case that I am close to, but familiar by choice with many others, but their hands were tied.

Number three is the feeling that what I want right now is more important than anything else.


That sounds more like government than a criminal.

Let me know when you and Kent can understand the ten commandments and the seven deadly sins.


My relative DOES not lie to me 1/10th as much as the government. Whenever I see a police or DOJ public press conference, I note how few facts (but lots of propaganda) are presented. If you are honest with yourself, you should agree.

Posted by: albeed | Feb 11, 2011 12:06:00 AM

Bill - You say that "the cost of the criminal justice system is a pittance compared with the cost of entitlement programs." Then you ask me whether I disagree with your assertion, and based on what figures. How in the world am I supposed to answer your questions if you won't say which entitlement programs you're talking about?

Posted by: reader | Feb 11, 2011 12:52:54 PM

reader --

Let's start off with the easy stuff: Will you admit that your claim that I want to "do away with" Social Security and Medicare is false, and that I have talked solely about "reform," not elimination?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 11, 2011 2:15:15 PM

I think everyone's overlooking the fact that the overwhelming majority of prison costs are borne by the states, and Social Security and Medicare are federal programs. Reforming entitlements would have next to zero effect on state prison spending.

For most states, corrections is one of the single largest budget items. It makes sense to talk about how to reduce those costs at the state level.

Posted by: SRS | Feb 11, 2011 5:49:48 PM

I'm done, Bill. You play silly games, like using buzz words such as "entitlement programs," then refusing to explain what you're even talking about, all the while demanding that others provide you with facts, figures, evidence, etc. You talk like you want to be taken seriously, but you make it all but impossible.

Posted by: reader | Feb 11, 2011 6:56:37 PM

reader --

"I'm done, Bill."

Actually, you never started. You launched with the patently false claim that I want to "do away with" Social Security and Medicare (your words). When called on it, you refused to acknowledge your error (assuming it was an error instead of a lie) and dodged every question your were asked, not that I asked a lot.

We had an election last November. A major issue, if not the major issue, was whether we can continue the out-of-control borrowing and spending of the last two years (or four years or ten years if you like).

We can't, as the electorate correctly and overwhelmingly decided.

You know full well what entitlements are. You also know full well, as does everyone not living in a cave, that the amount of spending on prisons, or the entire criminal justice system for that matter, is tiny compared to the spending on entitlements.

If the national debt is ever going to be tamed, it has to come PRIMARILY from trimming entitlements, because that is PRIMARILY where the money is.

The main reason you and others hedge about this, or (occasionally) refuse outright to admit it, is simple: You had a pre-existing agenda to scale back imprisonment, and this new-found cost consciousness is a nice add-on.

Well how lovely. Unlike you and your allies, I'll freely admit that ALL government spending is going to have to be cut, including the criminal justice system. That means prisons, rehab programs, prosecutors and public defenders. All of it.

The difference is that, unlike you and your constant and silly dodging about supposedly mysterious entitlements, I am willing to acknowledge that cutbacks in the criminal justice system are largely (although not entirely) a diversion from the main item, which is -- your faked ignorance notwithstanding -- entitlement spending.

Learn to live with it. You might as well, since you're not going to have a choice, just as the rest of us won't.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 11, 2011 10:37:30 PM



You get the government which you don't deserve, but which YOU have paid for.

Who is John Galt?

College, and law school are currently a waste of time and diminishing value of money. Wait till you see law professors and ex-DOJ USDA's selling pencils on street corners. Including Kent (there is never a criminal (I know, I have fabricated his past) that I wouldn't pull the trigger on.

Be kind and buy a pencil.

Posted by: albeed | Feb 11, 2011 10:43:44 PM

albeed --

"Including Kent (there is never a criminal (I know, I have fabricated his past) that I wouldn't pull the trigger on."

The difference between you and your ally "reader" is that you admit your fabrications.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 11, 2011 11:00:07 PM


Yes, I created a questionable post, and so have you. The government creates fabrications all the time. And you and Kent support them. Why? Your careers, your pensions?

Don't ask me for general data. Ask me for specific data.

Posted by: albeed | Feb 12, 2011 12:16:25 AM

albeed --

"Yes, I created a questionable post, and so have you."

Your post wasn't "questionable;" it was, according to you, "fabricated."

"The government creates fabrications all the time."

Take it up with President Obama. He's running the government, not me.

"And you and Kent support them."

What, specifically, is "them?" I support a few of the President's policies, but oppose most of them.

"Why? Your careers, your pensions?"

My decisions about what is correct in law and public policy have grown primarily from values my parents imparted to me before I ever held a job or knew what a pension was. They have been shaped over the years by my experience as an AUSA, a wonderful job that I am grateful and honored to have held (under adminstrations of both parties). And they have been further shaped, of late, by my students and colleagues at the law school.

I cannot speak for Kent, but so far as I know, he was never a government lawyer. I believe his government service consisted, in its entirety, of six years in the Air Force as a Nuclear Research Officer.

If you want to hold that against him, or my years as an AUSA against me, have at it. At this late date, ad hominem stuff coming my way is no longer even slightly noteworthy. You're a good ways behind the curve on that one.

"Don't ask me for general data. Ask me for specific data."

Rest easy, Mr. Albeed. I won't be asking you for ANY data.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 12, 2011 4:35:32 AM


I was gone all day and could not respond to your 4:35:32 AM post earlier.

Great reply! And you are right (Kent shouldn't have been mentioned).

You see, I was dirt poor growing up, (but I didn't know that and I was happy with what I had. I had 5 times more chores than my friends but I always got them done and had time to play.)

I received a scholarship to a great local private high school after my father's death (It has been repaid ten-fold), and I was accepted at a top-notch university for a study in Engineering. I had to work two jobs to pay for my education, but left without owing any money to anybody.

It was when I was in college (very liberal), that I realized you wouldn't find "truth", or even "accuracy" here. I received my Engineering Degree and went to work in a very regulated industry. I quickly realized that the regulations were "gotcha". We won't tell you what to do, but we will prosecute you when you are wrong.

Since that time, I go by two principles:

"Distrust those in whom the desire for punishment is very stong". (Nietszke)

"Show me a country with many laws, and I will show you a corrupt country". (I'll remeber the author later).

The laws created by an organization are no better than the people who occupy positions of power in that organization. We are creating bad laws by ignorant people.

Who is John Galt!

Posted by: albeed | Feb 12, 2011 10:57:44 PM

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