« Virginia struggle with costs of sex offender civil commitment | Main | SCOTUS apparently still not interested in reconsidering Almendarez-Torres »

February 22, 2011

"Conservatives must police bottom line on criminal justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this opinion piece authored by Grover Norquist, which appeared in the Orange County Register over the weekend. Here is how it starts and ends:

Conservatives pride themselves on relentlessly questioning government agencies: Is this program producing results? Do the results justify the cost?  Can the project be done less expensively? These are typical conservative questions about education, pensions, health care and dozens of other government functions —except one: criminal justice.

The size and cost of America's prisons has quadrupled in the past three decades.  In states like California, the annual cost of incarceration is around $50,000 per inmate. When looking for reasons why California is going bankrupt, just multiply that figure by the 170,000 inmates that live in the state.  Moreover, 34,000 California prisoners are serving life sentences as a result of the "three strikes" law, for which the state prison guards' union lobbied intensely.  Certainly, some violent criminals should be out after the first strike, but the law applies to many low-level, nonviolent offenders, too.

Criminal justice expenses continue to grow — even during a recession.  For instance, Delaware's Department of Corrections is seeking a 5 percent budget increase, while other agencies are desperately looking for ways to cut costs.  The costs of incarceration is worthwhile to the extent that it is the most cost-effective means of protecting the public; however, research indicates we have reached the point of diminishing returns.

Further, more prison spending provides less safety per dollar than other approaches. Texas recently cut incarceration rates by 8 percent, and the crime rate dropped by 6 percent.  If we move to New York, a 16 percent cut in the incarceration rate correlated with a 25 percent drop in crime.  These results are not anomalies.

In reality, prisons can make citizens less safe. When low-risk, nonviolent inmates mingle with career criminals, predators and gang leaders, they too often leave prison more dangerous than when they entered.  In some states, nonviolent offenders, such as drug users, shoplifters and bad-check writers, make up two-thirds of the prison population. Research shows, however, that public-safety outcomes improved when states focused on keeping the worst offenders in prison, but strengthened alternatives for lesser offenders.

Furthermore, lengthy prison stays pull people away from school, family obligations and religious institutions — all of the things that conservatives rightly emphasize as critical to good citizenship.  The problem in American criminal justice is clear, but so is the solution — and it requires conservative leadership....

We fight against big government, excess spending, unaccountability, and bureaucracy in nearly every other segment of spending.  With new Republican majorities nearly 20 state legislatures, now is the time to start fighting against an ineffective, big-government prison system and begin being tough on criminal justice's bottom line as well as crime.

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

February 22, 2011 at 03:24 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Conservatives must police bottom line on criminal justice":


"Moreover, 34,000 California prisoners are serving life sentences as a result of the 'three strikes' law...."

There are actually 8,727 third-strikers in California prisons as of 12/31/2010. Norquist is off by nearly a factor of four. There are a lot more "second strikers" under another provision of the same statute, but they are not serving life sentences.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 22, 2011 6:21:03 PM

Well, I'll be. Grover Norquist may have important details wrong, as Kent point out, but his general point is sound enough. Three cheers for common sense.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Feb 22, 2011 6:34:37 PM

"In reality, prisons can make citizens less safe."

What complete nonsense. As the number of inmates has markedly increased in recent years (as Norquist says, getting at least that one right), we have become, not less safe, but much more safe. The figures are unambiguous. Over the last two decades, as "incarceration nation" has taken off, the crime rate -- violent crime and everything else -- has nosedived, falling by more than 40%. Anyone want to contest that figure?

"These results [from New Yord and Texas] are not anomalies."

Complete baloney. Norquist is using two states (megastates at that, and for that reason alone atypical) to imply something that, as I noted above, is flat out false. Nationwide, increasing the prison population has overwhelmingly coincided with increasing public safety.

Norquist knows alot about accounting, but, as he is proving, next to nothing about crime. I wonder if he's ever so much as visited a prison or spent a day watching a felony trial.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 22, 2011 9:27:19 PM

Just keep an open mind. We need new solutions.

Posted by: beth | Feb 22, 2011 10:20:28 PM

Perhaps Mr. Norquist should be asking why it costs so much more in California to house a prisoner compared to other states. If we could get our per inmate costs closer to other states, we could save serious money and still house the same number.

Anyone who knows even a little about California 3 strikes would have known that figure of 34,000 was wrong and the answer is easily findable on the CDCR website. Not Mr. Norquist's best work it seems and suggests that the rest is poorly researched as well.

Finally, this silliness about alternate programs rather than than prison. Don't they realize that the vast, vast, majority of non-violent offenders do not go to prison on their first felony in California. Most have failed in the very programs that they seek to expand. While I do agree that in California we sentence tons of people to short prison sentences (on violations of probation and parole) that do very little in terms of both incapacitation or rehabilitation, more failed probation is not going to be better and I doubt it would be cheaper.

Finally I would like to see more of what Texas and New York actually did before I buy the argument that reduced incarceration eliminates gladiator school and therefore reduces the crime rate by the numbers they have experienced. There is more at work there.

Posted by: David | Feb 22, 2011 10:36:19 PM

David is correct. There is a waiting list to get into prison if you murder someone in my town.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 23, 2011 6:31:17 AM

There are fifty state, one federal and about four to five territorial correction systems that have the same general function but differ in important details. In general about 80% to 85% of the operational costs are for staff.

California correction officers have a very high starting salary and because they keep advertising for new staff I suspect the staff turnover rate is very high. Working in a badly overcrowded prison or jail is a very dangerous job.

Grits cab probably tell you what Texas has done to manage their prison problems.

Anything you can do to reduce the return rate to prison helps. On the other hand there are people who cannot be released that are not a threat to public safety and there are people who will be released that should not be because they are too dangerous.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 23, 2011 12:34:34 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB