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March 9, 2013

"The Conservative Case Against More Prisons"

Mar-apr-cover-archiveThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece authored by Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin, senior policy advisers to the Right on Crime campaign, and now appearing in The American Conservative. Here is how it starts:

Since the 1980s, the United States has built prisons at a furious pace, and America now has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. 716 out of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars. By comparison, in England and Wales, only 149 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated. In Australia — famously founded as a prison colony — the number is 130. In Canada, the number is 114.

Prisons, of course, are necessary.  In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil… as the site of a prison.”  As long as there are people, there will be conflict and crime, and there will be prisons.  Prisons, however, are not a source of pride.  An unusually high number of prison cells signals a society with too much crime, too much punishment, or both.

There are other ways to hold offenders — particularly nonviolent ones — accountable. These alternatives when properly implemented can lead to greater public safety and increase the likelihood that victims of crime will receive restitution.  The alternatives are also less costly.  Prisons are expensive (in some states, the cost of incarcerating an inmate for one year approaches $60,000), and just as policymakers should scrutinize government expenditures on social programs and demand accountability, they should do the same when it comes to prison spending.  None of this means making excuses for criminal behavior; it simply means “thinking outside the cell” when it comes to punishment and accountability.

This argument is increasingly made by prominent conservatives.  Bill Bennett, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, and Grover Norquist have all signed the Statement of Principles of Right On Crime, a campaign that advocates a position on criminal justice that is more rooted in limited-government principles.  They are joined as signatories by the conservative criminologist John Dilulio and by George Kelling, who helped usher in New York City’s successful data-driven policing efforts under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.  Some groups, like Prison Fellowship Ministries, approach the issue from a socially conservative perspective.  Others, like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network, have fiscal concerns top of mind.  Regardless, a sea change is underway in sentencing and corrections policy, and conservatives are leading it.

March 9, 2013 at 02:46 PM | Permalink


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Right on Crime has no credibility because they refuse to acknowledge that it was largely the conservatives (and Democrats like Clinton who co-opted their take on crime) that caused this mess in the first place.
There is NOTHING in that editorial that moderates and liberals have not been saying for more than three decades about the wastefulness of mass incarceration. But they were derided by conservatives, who have tried to shift from "tough on crime" to "smart on crime" without acknowledging the obvious: that "tough" was not "smart."

ALEC needs to confess up to the problems of 3 strikes before basking in the glory of evidence-based, fiscally-responsible reform.
Gingrich needs to take responsibility for stupid legislation, like his proposed legislation calling for life imprisonment for importing more than two ounces of marijuana. [H.R. 4170, Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1996. http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h104-4170] Remember the Republican Contract with America that, as far as crime is concerned, was a prison building bill?
Etc, etc.

You have NO credibility taking leadership for driving the bus out of the ditch if you can't acknowledge that it was your reckless disregard of evidence that put it there in the first place.

Posted by: Paul | Mar 9, 2013 5:30:39 PM

There are many points of agreement between the right and the left about the criminal justice system. The federal Bureau of Prisons had it's most significant increase during the Clinton administration. Some Democrats dreamed of mandatory minimums and also sorely want to protect law enforcement and prison govenmnt jobs.

Some Republicans forget their fiscal conservative values in order to supress those with values they don't understand. We need to understand that a government that can keep you safe and comfortable at all times can also suck freedom from the air you breath.

The name calling can go on, but it does nothing toward solving the problem of mass incarceration - or for that matter the national debt or budget deficit. When everyone has as their first priority protecting their turf no progress can be made.

Protecting civil liberties and reducing the national debt are good companions - don't think that we can't make progress on both. We just need to stop yelling for and supporting what we preceive to be our team. Save that for your favorite sport.

The fact that Right on Crime, Cato, Reason, ACLU and Soros Open Society can all agree that we need to change our harsh sentencing for non-violent crimes means that there is hope that a degree of freedom from government control and intrusion can happen. Support what can be. Don't wast valuable energy on nailing down whose fault it is - the fault belongs to all of us.

Posted by: beth | Mar 9, 2013 7:30:58 PM

"they refuse to acknowledge that it was largely the conservatives (and Democrats like Clinton who co-opted their take on crime) that caused this mess in the first place."

BS. Anyone who claims the tuff-on-crime juggernaut was anything but bipartisan demagoguery is engaging in revisionist history. Here in Texas, where Right on Crime originated, it was Gov. Ann Richards and a Democratic legislature (at the time) that decided to triple the size of the prison system and beef up the laws to fill it. That had nothing to do with Gingrich or ALEC. Hell, you couldn't even blame Bill Otis or Kent Scheidegger for it, it was (what passes in Texas for) liberals.

Beth said it best: "the fault belongs to all of us."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 10, 2013 1:13:44 PM

Sorry, the right needs to take primary responsibility for high incarceration rates.

Johnson (Dem) - war on poverty was a war on crime
Nixon (Rep) war on crime
Carter (Dem) legalize possession of less than 1 oz of marijuana (punishment was worse than crime
Reagan (Rep) - 3 strikes, truth in sentencing, etc
Bush 1 (rep) - followed Reagan; remember the Willie Horton ad- racial fear in service of tough on crime?
Clinton (Dem) - followed Reagan and Bush
Bush 2 (Rep) - less heated rhetoric, but continued to expand prison pop

Posted by: Paul | Mar 10, 2013 7:39:22 PM

With less than three-quarters of one percent incarcerated, prison is not the problem (except for those in the prison-is-a-problem industry, which is very few as public policy issues go in this country). The fact is that 99.3% of the population is NOT in prison.

Would that it were true that 99.3% of the population had not been a victim of crime, but, alas, this is not the case. It is the case, however, that crime has been cut in half in the era of increased incarceration, and incarceration is a significant part of the reason for this welcome development, whether the pro-prisoner commenters wish to acknowledge it or not. (They don't, because crime victims don't count).

The public certainly seems to be aware of it, however. This is the reason that, even in a very good year for liberals, "incarceration nation" couldn't even make the radar screen as a political issue. Indeed I think ocean warming was ahead of it on the list.

There's a really, really easy way to reduce the prison population: Don't do things that can get you sent to prison. It's not that hard. Live a normal life, get a job like the rest of us have to, control your temper, don't take stuff that doesn't belong to you and don't view six year-old's as sex objects.

Like I say, it's not that hard.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 10, 2013 9:16:14 PM

The cost of incarcerating non-violent offenders is on the radar screen for democrats and republicans. "Over Criminalization" is a business that costs much more than just housing and feeding inmates. There is the cost of law enforcement, prosecutors, and many businesses that have been developed and become profitable with government contracts to warn, advertise, test, evaluate and study problems that are greatly exagerated by those whose incomes depend on this government intrusion and control.

I believe we have over 70 agencies that have enforcement power - many of these agencies serve special interest groups - corporate or public policy. We need to be more concerned with freedom and fiscal responsibility.

Posted by: beth | Mar 10, 2013 10:29:29 PM

beth --

When I say that "incarceration nation" is not on the radar screen, I mean the radar screen that showed up in the election four months ago. A number of organizations polled what issues were on the electorate's mind, and over-incarceration didn't even make the list, no matter how long the list was. Indeed no criminal justice issue made the list, a fact Doug often lamented right on this blog.

People are happy with the big drop in crime, as they have every right and reason to be. Aren't you?

I agree with you in general that we have an overspending, overcontrolling, overextended government, but I don't think (apparently with most other people) that incarceraion is the problem. Nor -- to answer your oft-stated concern -- are we incarcerating for simple possession of pot. People convicted of simple possession, with rare exceptions, don't get prison sentences. People convicted of the harder drugs often do get such sentences, as they should.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 10, 2013 11:40:58 PM


1) Adjudicated charge is fictitious 95% of the time. No one knows who is violent, who is not, unless decisions are based on the indicted charges. Not happening without a fight from the public defender.

2) Not $60K. More like $30K. Say it is $60K. If a felon commits 200 felonies a year, and drops property values in his surrounding area by $millions, which taxpayer here wants to save $60K?

3) Denies the self evident, incarceration nation dropped crime 40%. Denies crime is through the roof in Europe.

4) All prisoners have exhausted alternative sentencing. Most have failed at that. Judges are already bending over backwards to keep people out of jail, and have no choice left when they do not.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 11, 2013 11:55:26 AM

// " According to the the FBI, the estimated number of violent crimes in 2011 declined for the 5th consecutive year.
Property crimes also decreased, marking the 9th straight year" //

// "[i]ncarceration rates for black Americans dropped sharply from 2000 to 2009, especially for women…" //

// “A major contributor has been the intensity of incarceration for drug offending,” Dr. Blumstein said, “and that
reached a peak with the very long sentences we gave out..." //

Mòran taing (many thanks) to all those who did the hard work of apprehending, prosecuting, and incarcerating
criminals over the last 2 decades. May we continue to reap the benefits.

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 11, 2013 12:14:44 PM

Bill Otis stated: " There's a really, really easy way to reduce the prison population: Don't do things that can get you sent to prison. It's not that hard. Live a normal life, get a job like the rest of us have to, control your temper, don't take stuff that doesn't belong to you and don't view six year-old's as sex objects."

Actually, one thing that may lower the prison population best is more arrests for misdemeanor crimes, so-called broken windows policing. Studies have shown that arrests for pot possession, graffiti, public drunkenness, etc. result in no more than a few days in jail but often prevent more serious crimes. NYC's use of this method has been found by these studies to be one of the main reason that NYS's prison population began to decrease earlier and faster than the rest of the country.

Posted by: Tarlsqtr1 | Mar 12, 2013 1:02:38 AM


I must concur with your "broken windows" (J.Q. Wilson) approach, and fail to see a down-side.

Perhaps the analogy of the elephant applies also: attached to a ball & chain far too light to
restrain her,—or to none at all--the grown giant attempts no escape because the apparatus
effectively prevented her when she was young—a subconscious discouragement.

“The consequences of an act affect the probability of it's occurring again.” (Skinner)

The Bartow police instructors taught us that they booked shoplifters at Wal Mart (who were shocked)
rather than merely issuing an appearance ticket like neighbouring cities. Was shoplifting rarer? Dunno,
but it couldn't be expected to be higher.

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 12, 2013 10:29:29 AM

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