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Michael Haugen | March 14, 2016
Note: This is the final in a series of three articles that counter comments made by Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke during a panel discussion on criminal justice reform at CPAC, where he suggested that reform efforts are built on “three lies.” The first can be found here, and the second here.
Truth #3: Criminal justice reform can—and has—reduced costs.
During his remarks, Sheriff Clarke stated that federal criminal justice reform would not yield cost savings, and instead, would simply shift the cost of incarceration back to the states.
Even were we to take Clarke’s statement as rote—and such an eventuality is not a given—it has always been understood throughout the country’s history that criminal justice matters are best administered and adjudicated at the state level. Alexander Hamilton stated as much in Federalist 17, and experience has certainly also shown that state governments are best suited to it, as the persistent federalization of criminal law over the last 35 years has lead that corrections system to grow largely on autopilot. While it’s true that states have seen their fair share of growth over that period as well, they’ve also proven themselves more adept at responding to inefficiencies. Therefore, at least from a philosophical standpoint, states taking on more responsibility in an area of public policy they’re better tasked with is hardly controversial.
Even on a practical level, Clarke’s comments don’t mesh with reality, and once again, it’s to the states that we can derive evidence of such. In the early days of Texas’ reforms, the state faced the prospect of building 17,000 new prison beds due to forecasted growth, at an expected cost of over $2.1 billion. Instead, legislators passed justice reinvestment policies aimed at increasing treatment capacity for substance abusers, expanding diversion via probation and parole, and instituting specialty courts. As a result, new prison beds were not only unnecessary, but ten adult and juvenile facilities have since been closed, with billions in spending averted or saved—something never done before in Texas.
Many other states have enjoyed similar cost savings. With crime rates continuing to fall as states discover the sensibility—and feasibility—of reform, they’ve been able to shutter their prisons, and reinvest savings into proven recidivism-reduction programs. The same process that has allowed the closure of state facilities can apply federally, as well.
Conservatives at the state level, far from shrinking away from the subject, have carried the torch aloft the highest, having recognized not only the prospect of saving substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars, but also the redemptive value of second chances, and the wisdom of not allowing a significant portion of government influence to operate unchecked. Being “smart on crime” is not being “soft on crime.”
We praise Sheriff Clarke for his dedication to keeping the community he serves safe, as well as for his unwavering support of an individual’s natural right of self-defense under the 2nd Amendment. Further, we strongly agree with his assertion that we need to reconsider our juvenile justice system, as early interventions in troubled youth’s behavior can help avoid future lawbreaking—something Right on Crime has been involved in heavily since its inception. But let’s not stop there. A decade’s worth of data and experience in dozens of states has demonstrated that reforms to the adult system are safe, as well, and can yield favorable outcomes for both the public’s safety and their pocketbook.
Let’s get to work.