This article by Right on Crime Signatory Grover Norquist originally appeared in Wall Street Journal, September 26th, 2017.
Every so often I’m asked to list the conservative movement’s most important recent accomplishments. One always ranks near the top: criminal justice reform.
With leadership from Republican governors and legislators and groups such as Right on Crime, conservatives have pushed to rein in runaway prison spending and adopt cost-conscious correctional policies that improve public safety. Starting 10 years ago in Texas, more than half of all states have now shifted course, changing laws to ensure that violent offenders serve hard time while those who are not a danger are steered toward less expensive alternatives that can help alter the paths of their lives and make communities safer.
Taxpayers benefit. In 2007 the Pew Charitable Trusts projected that state prisons would grow 14% over five years, costing states $27.5 billion more. Instead, the reforms have bent the curve. The state prison population is down 5%. Between 2010 and 2015, 31 states reduced both crime and imprisonment, proving that fiscal discipline and safe streets can go hand in hand.
Many of us on the right are concerned by rumblings we’re hearing in Washington and beyond. It’s disturbing that reports of isolated increases in violence in a handful of cities are fueling predictions of a looming American crime wave. There is no evidence for such predictions. The U.S. violent crime rate rose 3.4% last year, but it remains about half of what it was in 1991, when crime reached its modern-day peak.
While any uptick in crime merits our attention, we must be clear-eyed in our interpretation of the numbers and while developing an effective response. Americans are safer than they have been at almost any time in the last quarter-century, and returning to the failed policies of the past would be a costly mistake.
For decades, state spending on prisons and jails was the second-fastest-growing area of state budgets, behind only Medicaid. From 1980 to 2009, state corrections spending grew more than 400%. In North Carolina in 2016, the average cost of incarcerating an inmate was $89.30 a day, or $32,594 a year—compared with only $4.85 a day ($1,770 a year) for probation or parole.
Some criminals need to be in expensive prison cells, but shouldn’t we be doing a better job of determining who? For too long, courts and corrections officials were given a blank check to incarcerate at will yet were never held to answer for the poor results: high recidivism rates, driven by offenders who left prison with unresolved drug and mental-health problems and no job prospects.
We must not go backward, and the states are showing us why. In 2007, the Texas Legislature projected the state would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years, at a cost of $2 billion. Conservative lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Perry instead expanded the use of drug courts, community treatment and other alternatives. Ten years later, the reforms have allowed Texas to avoid more than $3 billion in new spending and close four prisons with four more planned closures. Crime has dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s.
Since Texas’ pioneering move, other states have followed. After South Carolina passed substantial criminal justice reforms in 2010, the state cut its prison population by 14%, closed six prisons, and saved $491 million—all while crime continued to decline.
The latest example is Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate. In June its Legislature enacted a 10-bill reform package that is expected to reduce incarceration by 10% and save more than $250 million over the next decade. Some savings will be directed to programs that reduce recidivism and help crime victims. Six of the nine bill authors were Republicans.
Many of America’s reddest states are proving that criminal justice reform works: Georgia, Utah, South Dakota—the list goes on. Strong conservative leadership has been essential. Continued progress won’t be possible without it.