This post, written by J. Robert McClure—President and CEO of the James Madison Institute in Florida, and a Right on Crime signatory—originally appeared in the Spring edition of “The Journal.”
No doubt, over the past 20 years, the definition of what it means to be a conservative has evolved significantly with respect to the issue of criminal justice policy and the conservative movement’s approach to individuals who have been accused, tried, and adjudicated of crimes. As crime rates climbed throughout the 70s and 80s, a sentiment among conservatives that government needed to be “tough on crime” grew with them. As these policies began to take effect in the early 90s, crime rates began to decline. The violent crime rate fell approximately 50 percent from 758.2 in 1991 to 372.6 in 20151, the most recent year for which we have data. Property crime also fell around 50 percent from 5,140.2 in 1991 to 2487 in 2015.
However, with this trend, new and disturbing realities have also emerged. While crime rates have fallen, incarceration rates have skyrocketed, splintering families in a society that already struggles to keep families together. The total population incarcerated in the United States increased by almost 50 percent in the period from 1991-2015, at a time when the total U.S. population increased by less than 30 percent. Today close to 7 million people are incarcerated in the United States and the number continues to grow. Almost 7 million people, because of being incarcerated at the state level, must necessarily be dependent on the state and funded by the taxpayer.
Criminal justice reform focuses on the twin goals of increasing public safety and saving taxpayer dollars. This issue is especially important for Floridians. In the last four years, conservatives in Florida have examined the issues of criminal justice most substantively in the juvenile arena, passing reforms like juvenile civil citations, expanding the confidentiality of records and expungement of records for juveniles that have turned their lives around. At the same time, JMI has partnered with national groups, such as Right on Crime, to promote positive economic and constitutionally principled reforms in the adult criminal justice system.
As the third-largest state in the U.S., and possessing one of the highest incarceration rates, Florida has a unique opportunity to be a pioneer in criminal justice reform. Florida’s example can be a blueprint to other states, making the case that principles of limited government, free markets and personal liberty are exactly the remedy for what ails the nation’s criminal justice system.
Conservative ideals of small government are difficult to reconcile with a system that keeps millions of nonviolent offenders incarcerated and stuck in a cycle of poverty, recidivism, and dependence. In Florida, close to one out of every 100 persons is incarcerated. And, post-release, offenders are subjected to evermore discriminatory and intrusive government policies that hamper their ability to regain their social and financial footing while becoming productive members of society. With recidivism rates close to 30 percent, perhaps it is time to look at how criminal justice policy reform can be a driver of rehabilitation and productivity, and can put a damper on recidivism. New policies that incentivize and allow past non-violent offenders the ability to become productive members of society are conservative reforms that can both shrink the size and economic burden of the criminal justice system and promote public safety at the same time.
As an increasing percentage of the population is housed in the prison system, the cost of running the criminal justice system inevitably grows. The economic burden of this system on the country has been estimated at close to a trillion dollars annually. Researchers estimate that attached to every dollar spent on incarcerations there is an additional 10 dollars of economic burden. Even more pressing is the reality that at least half of the costs of incarceration are borne by the families and communities of those incarcerated. When the opportunity costs from years of lost work during a prison term, and an even greater loss of productivity in the years after release, are factored in, it becomes evident that something must be done. The costs of the status quo are far greater than the benefits.
For too long, ideas that promote generating revenue, increasing government, and limiting freedom have been the norm when it comes to criminal justice reform. A true conservative vision that emphasizes public safety, personal responsibility, restitution, rehabilitation and accountable government can be the framework for a justice system that works for everyone. A simple reversion to the way things were before does not work. Many of our existing policies are decades old, far removed from new scientific and sociological research. We need new and improved solutions for the modern challenges of the justice system. And in addressing reform, we must be conscious of two equally vital measures when formulating policy: the costs to taxpayers and the impact on public safety. Reforms that increase public safety while at the same time allow for rehabilitation for those who go through the criminal justice system and save the taxpayer money are in fact possible.
This wave is relatively new, but not completely unchartered. Our friends in Texas have shown that conservative principles can have a positive impact and succeed. Over the past seven years, organizations such as Right on Crime have been actively reforming criminal justice policy in Texas. Conservatives have saved the state billions of dollars and simultaneously increased public safety. It’s one of the reasons that The James Madison Institute has been a signatory to this now national effort.
It is a privilege to dedicate this latest issue of The Journal to the vital task of reforming our criminal justice policies in Florida. The writers in this edition of The Journal are thoughtful and experienced on this subject. My guess is that most of us have been touched by this issue in many ways personally or in the lives of family members, friends, or neighbors. I hope that our readers will find these writings informative and encouraging.