The defense of society from internal and external threats is a legitimate public good, and public safety is recognized by virtually all Americans as a legitimate use of government power and funds. Americans must ensure that government performs its public safety responsibilities effectively and efficiently.

For too long, however, American conservatives have ceded the intellectual ground on criminal justice. Liberal ideas came to occupy the space, and in many respects, they were misguided ideas. They often placed the blame for crime upon society rather than upon individuals. They also failed to effectively monitor many criminal justice programs to determine whether they were truly providing taxpayers with the results commensurate with their cost. Now, the criminal justice arena is starved for conservative solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders, and lowering costs. Right on Crime makes the case for conservative criminal justice reform.

Nearly 1 in every 100 American
adults is in prison or jail.


While crime rates have generally declined over the last couple of decades, recent data shows a significant rise in violent crime and property crime. Because government exists to secure liberties that can only be enjoyed to the extent there is public safety, state and local policymakers must make fighting crime their top priority, including utilizing prisons to incapacitate violent offenders and career criminals. Prisons are overused, however, when nonviolent offenders who may be safely supervised in the community are given lengthy sentences. Prisons provide diminishing returns when such offenders emerge more disposed to re-offend than when they entered prison.

Conservatives recognize that there are still far too many victims and too many Americans living in fear in their own homes and neighborhoods. Accordingly, conservatives are united in seeking to use the limited resources in both the law enforcement and corrections systems to maximize further reductions in the crime rate for every taxpayer dollar spent.

Right-Sizing Government

Nearly 1 in every 100 American adults is in prison or jail. When you add in those on probation or parole, almost 1 in 33 adults is under some type of control by the criminal justice system. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate was 1 in every 77 adults. This represents a significant expansion of government power. By reducing excessive sentence lengths and holding nonviolent offenders accountable through prison alternatives, public safety can often be achieved consistent with a legitimate, but more limited, role for government.

Fiscal Discipline

Taxpayers know that public safety is the core function of government, and they are willing to pay what it takes to keep communities safe. In return for their tax dollars, citizens are entitled to a system that works. When governments spend money inefficiently and do not obtain crime reductions commensurate with the amount of money being spent, they do taxpayers a grave disservice. Conservatives must address runaway spending on prisons just as they do with education and health care, subjecting the same level of skepticism and scrutiny to all expenditures of taxpayers’ funds.

The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion per year, up from $11 billion in the mid-1980s. It has been the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid, and consumes one in every 14 general fund dollars. Conservatives know that it is possible to cut both crime rates and costly incarceration rates because over the past ten years, seven states have done it: Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas.

At a time of tight budgets in state capitols and households alike, it is time for innovative policy approaches that maximize the public safety return on our investment of taxpayers’ dollars.

The prison system now costs states
more than $50 billion per year.

Victim Support

Punishing criminals and holding them accountable is only part of a government’s proper response to crime. Also important is ensuring that crime victims are made whole, treating victims and survivors with respect, making sure they are aware of available services and opportunities for involvement, and reconciling victims with offenders where possible.

In 2008, Texas probationers paid $45 million in restitution to victims, but prisoners paid less than $500,000 in restitution, fines, and fees. Making victims whole must be prioritized when determining appropriate punishments for offenders.

Increasing evidence indicates that there is a genuine benefit to incorporating practices into our criminal justice system that emphasize victim engagement, empowerment, and restitution. These concepts have been demonstrated to yield benefits that redound not only to victims, but also to taxpayers and even to offenders, since an offender fully recognizing and acknowledging the harm they have caused another person is often critical to rehabilitation.

Making victims whole must be prioritized when determining appropriate punishments for offenders.

The criminal justice system should be structured to ensure that victims are treated with dignity and respect and with the choice to participate, receive restitution, and even be reconciled with offenders. To this end, the system should ensure that victims are provided opportunities: to obtain notice of all proceedings; to be present at all proceedings; to be heard at every proceeding involving a post-arrest release, delay, plea, sentencing, post-conviction release, or any other proceeding at which a victim’s right may be at issue; for reasonable protection from intimidation and harm; for privacy; for information and referral; to apply for victim compensation (for violent crime victims); for speedy proceedings and a prompt and final conclusion; and for restitution.

Personal Responsibility

With some 5 million offenders on probation or parole, it’s critical that the corrections system hold these offenders accountable for their actions by holding a job or performing community service, attending required treatment programs, and staying crime- and drug-free. When the system has real teeth, the results can be dramatic: offenders subject to swift, certain and commensurate sanctions for rule violations in Hawaii’s HOPE program are less than half as likely to be arrested or fail a drug test.

Government Accountability

More than 40% of released offenders return to prison within three years of release, and in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. As Right on Crime signatories Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley have asked, “[i]f two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?” Corrections funding should be partly linked to outcomes and should implement proven strategies along the spectrum between basic probation and prison.

Reducing recidivism should be a central focus of conservative efforts to reform criminal justice. Conservatives understand that reforming offenders is both a moral imperative and a requirement for public safety. Breaking the cycle of crime and turning lawbreakers into law-abiding citizens is a conservative priority because it advances public safety, the rule of law, and minimizes the number of future victims.

Family Preservation

Incarceration is a significant and necessary factor in public safety, but conservatives understand that there are also other factors. A strategy of vigorous, data-driven law enforcement that results in more crimes being deterred and solved — coupled with effective probation strategies that emphasize restitution, work, and treatment — is essential for protecting communities.

Conservatives know that certain law enforcement techniques enhance safety, others have little effect on safety, and some may actively diminish public safety because law enforcement dollars are being spent inefficiently or in counterproductive ways. Ultimately, the question underlying every tax dollar that is spent on fighting crime ought to be: Is this making the public safer?

The family unit is the foundation of society.

According to National Review, “40 percent of low-income men who father a child out of wedlock have already been in jail or prison by the time their first son or daughter is born.” The family unit is the foundation of society. In a society in which too many young men are incarcerated, marriage rates are depressed and far too many children grow up in single-parent homes. Instead of harming families, the corrections system must harness the power of charities, faith-based groups, and communities to reform offenders and preserve families.

Free Enterprise

The Constitution lists only three federal crimes, but the number of statutory federal crimes has now swelled to around 4,500. This is to say nothing of the thousands of bizarre state-level crimes, such as the 11 felonies in Texas related to the harvesting of oysters. The explosion of non-traditional criminal laws grows government and undermines economic freedom. Criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is blameworthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to regulate non-fraudulent economic activity involving legal products.