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Michael Haugen | May 20, 2015
In a new column for The New Republic released on Monday, Stephen Lurie correctly acknowledges that our sprawling criminal justice system has recently enjoyed widespread attention from lawmakers and policy houses—Republican and Democrat alike—who are interested in reform. Having realized that the decades-old “tough on crime” stance has led to spiraling prison populations, disproportionate sentencing for crime (particularly non-violent drug offenses), and mounting costs, there is a bipartisan push on to seek solutions that will address these persistent issues. Reforms ought to make the justice system more equitable and efficient, but should always be performed with an eye towards preserving the public safety.
Such has been the mission of Right on Crime since its inception in late 2010. Our raison d’etre is to “fight crime, support victims, and protect taxpayers.” We don’t place special significance on any single objective to the detriment of the others, believing it possible to achieve harmony between them all with every potential reform we support.
Which is why it’s unfortunate that Lurie frames our desired goals as being primarily concerned with “fiscal responsibility” and that the drive for reform in general is cast in such “conservative terms” like “cutting costs, saving funds, and minimizing the size of the system.” While such concerns are indeed important, Lurie’s prevailing argument appears to be that the fiscal impact of our unwieldy justice system is the sole concern of those interested in reform, but this would be an unfair indictment, as I hope to show.
But, for now, let’s address the financial element. There shouldn’t be anything particularly untoward about the way such language is used to characterize the costs associated with administering our justice system, which Lurie admits are “incredible” and “exorbitant.” Indeed, they are: In 2010, maintaining the nation’s various justice systems cost taxpayers around $80 billion. It is not an evil unto itself then to suggest that—even on “conservative” terms–such a high figure is unacceptable and that costs can, and should, be cut responsibly. It doesn’t ultimately matter what phrasing we use to describe the costs. Instead, it matters what we do about it.
Right on Crime has many other concerns beyond fiscal considerations that guide our policy recommendations. A deeper look at our statement of principles reveal other beliefs that we prize in a justice system: transparency, performance measures that hold it accountable for its results, and that criminal law “should be reserved for conduct that is either blameworthy or threatens public safety.” As alluded to earlier, preserving public safety is important as well, 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.”
Again, we believe that all of these principles, including a responsibility of protecting taxpayer resources, are of equal import.
Lurie goes on to discuss bipartisan pieces of legislation pending in Congress that seek to improve recidivism rates, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, and provide lower-risk offenders the opportunity to accrue “good-time” credits through participation in community-based programs designed to ease re-entry into society.
As before, however, Lurie decries various references to cutting spending or attempts under these bills to save money. Additionally, he takes issue with exceptions, particularly under the CORRECTIONS Act, co-written by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, that prevent violent inmates or those convicted of serious crimes–sex offenders, terrorism offenders, major organized crime offenders, etc.—from receiving credits under the program:
“The exceptions written into these bills are completely illogical from a public policy standpoint, if the authors’ goals are really to reduce recidivism or genuinely support citizens.”
Such exemptions do make sense, however, when the goal is to advance reforms that both reduce recidivism and preserve public safety. It is not in the public interest to incarcerate low-risk, nonviolent offenders for long, especially in the same environment as higher-risk, violent ones. Doing so introduces the likelihood of non-violent offenders being influenced by a culture of criminality commonplace among hardened inmates, and becoming a greater risk to the public than when they were first incarcerated. For obvious reasons, this would be counterproductive, hence the exclusion of violent offenders from consideration for early release.
It’s also necessary to push back against Lurie’s assertion that the “narrative” surrounding current reform proposals “excludes vital fixes and alternatives to a justice system that require more resources, not less.” This simply does not follow from real-world examples.
For instance, Alabama’s legislature just passed a far-reaching reform package that included alternative sentencing options for judges. Instead of simply committing offenders to incarceration for the duration of their sentence, some of them will be able to split their time between incarceration and supervised community programs. Far from removing resources, this package calls for an increase in the current number of parole and probation officers to facilitate this new sentencing option. Similar supervision programs have been proven to work in other jurisdictions. Alabama is expected to cut costs overall, but will then be able to refocus their efforts in other areas that work better than before. Reducing costs while increasing resource effectiveness can be done concurrently.
Saving taxpayer resources is an important function of any government entity, as the public deserves the satisfaction of knowing their dollars are not being squandered on ineffectual programs. But Right on Crime and other justice reform advocates don’t stop there. From addressing indigent defense, to prizing the power of families, charities, faith-based groups, and communities to affect positive change in the lives of offenders, Right on Crime seeks to improve the criminal justice system in its entirety.