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Michael Haugen | May 13, 2016
In a new column over at Ricochet, Nathanael Ferguson, executive director of Texas Action, takes umbrage with recent suggestions that criminal justice reform is “misguided,” instead saying that the effort “is necessary to restrain [a] government that has grown too large, powerful, and costly.”
One point in particular Ferguson makes that merits attention centers on the fact that while many conservatives are rightly critical of most other areas of government, there remain some who are content to allow our various criminal justice systems to operate largely on autopilot:
“Conservatives are generally suspicious of government that is too big, too costly, and too powerful. That is, until it comes to the justice system, where we seem to think it’s okay for the government to be big and powerful and spend our tax dollars like a drunken sailor. But why should we view the justice system any differently than the rest of the government? Why should we not demand transparency and accountability? Why should we not demand that crime and punishment be proportional? Why should we not demand that justice-related spending be efficient and cost-effective?
The answer is that we should demand these things. And to a growing extent we are, which is why it is mostly conservative states with Republican governors leading the way on criminal justice reform and in so doing making the system more just and less costly to taxpayers. To be sure, some liberal lawmakers who support the movement may tend to overreach and make the leap from being ‘right on crime’ to being ‘soft on crime.’ But that’s no reason to condemn the entire movement.”
Ferguson is correct. Despite a decade’s worth of evidence supporting the viability and successes of conservative-based criminal justice reforms, far too many on the Right have clung to an outmoded and uncritical view of criminal justice that favors harsh penalties while seemingly discounting the need to achieve good results. We agree that keeping serious or repeat criminals in prison for long periods is an effective means of maintaining public safety, but there does exist a point of diminishing returns. Tossing all offenders in the hoosegow and “throwing away the key” is not a universally responsible public policy, and research has shown it to be counterproductive, as relatively non-violent offenders—yes, they do, in fact, exist—risk being exposed to a culture of criminality that’s common among more hardened criminals. A simple fact remains: over 90% of all offenders will be released at some point. Making any of them more dangerous than they were initially is the public-safety equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot.
What criminal justice reform has largely represented is an expansion of options. Rather than solely rely on lengthy carceral sanctions—which have, at best, a tenuous effect on reducing crime rates—conservative states have instead sought to introduce and/or expand alternative—and more cost effective—methods in lieu of incarceration, including specialty courts, swift and certain sanctions for those violating terms of parole or probation, substance abuse treatment programs, among many others. This has also included significant sentencing reforms, as many states are reducing mandatory minimums or eliminating them altogether, which affords judges the ability to weigh relevant facts unique to each case, and deliver individualized penalties.
All of this has the effect of introducing an element of dynamism into a large, complex, and eminently powerful area of government—one that has the lawful ability to strip individuals of their liberties and put them in prison—and requiring that it act intelligently, efficaciously, and frugally.
Ferguson states that criminal justice reform is a “moral imperative for a society that values limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and a justice system that is fair to victims, violators, and the taxpayers who fund it.” He’s right in this, too. Would that those remaining few choosing to ignore the weight of data and experience would recognize this, as well.