Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Koch Brothers and other leading conservatives support major changes to America’s criminal justice system. They acknowledge the dramatic financial and human costs of mass incarceration.
Why then is Federal Attorney General Jeff Sessions doubling down on "tough on crime" policy and rhetoric? While Trump’s dealings with Russia dominate the news cycle, Sessions is building on his memorandum, released in May, asking that federal prosecutors pursue the most severe possible sentence. On Tuesday, Sessions’ described "law enforcement as prevention" and continued to link recent sentencing reform to increases in violent crime.
In stark contrast, Gingrich believes "there is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential… the criminal justice system is broken and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it." In the early 1990s Gingrich called for more prisons, while today he describes them as "graduate schools of crime."
Joining Gingrich, Republican Senator Rand Paul has said "we should treat our nation's drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' problem." The Koch Brothers also believe America has been over-criminalized to the detriment of community safety.
Conservative group Right on Crime is a leading conservative criminal justice think tank. They are seeking removal of prison as punishment for minor parole violations, increased emphasis on drug treatment programs, and rejecting mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offences. The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, comprised of thousands of officers who are and have been on the front lines, are advocating for similar changes.
As more and more states move away from "tough on crime" approaches, the early results are heartening. Texas, for example, has introduced drug, mental health, and veterans’ courts that seek to address the root cause of re-offending rather than resorting to prison by default. There has also been increased investment in evidence-based prison programs to lower re-offending upon release. These new policies have coincided with a 12.9 percent drop in the imprisonment rate over the last five years and no new prisons since 2005. Crime levels have also decreased.
These alternative approaches to criminal justice are sensible conservative positions. Not hard or soft on crime, but rather, entirely in line with conservative values — fiscal responsibility, supporting secure families and communities, and combining personal responsibility with the opportunity for redemption.
Smaller prison populations mean savings for state budgets. At a cost of almost $30,000 per inmate per year, taxpayers are better off. This is an issue of how best to use finite resources to focus on the most serious crimes. Almost 60 percent of America’s prison population are behind bars for non-violent offences — property crime, drugs, and public order offenses.
Families and communities are better off too. Sessions is calling for a return of harsh mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offences. This approach has never — in any jurisdiction — sustainably reduced crime. Sure, putting people behind bars gives the perception of increasing community safety. It’s a blunt, simpleton approach. Yet, over the long-term, longer sentences are associated with higher re-offending.
For decades, America’s criminal justice system has torn families apart. When more parents, often fathers, are in prison, the cycle of intergenerational welfare dependence continues. This departs from a basic American ideal — all children deserve the best possible start in life. Draconian mandatory minimum sentencing policies have already failed America.
The opportunity for redemption is also often missing from the "tough on crime" narrative. Sessions talks about horrific anecdotes — rape, murders, and gang violence. And, of course, people must take responsibility for these abhorrent crimes and should be duly punished. In severe cases, some people are not fit to rejoin society.
But don’t allow Sessions to use these most severe cases to instill fear. Although Sessions talks of soaring violent crime in major cities, FBI data over the last two decades shows violent crime is at historic lows. Evidence for his claim that rising violent crime is due to sentencing reform for drug offences in recent years — none.
Even the overwhelming majority of victims want prevention and rehabilitation to be prioritized over punishment, according to the 2016 National Survey of Victims. These are people like 78 year-old Louise Babst from West Virginia who, earlier this year, told the judge that a 24 and 25 year-old who robbed her "deserve a second chance."
Sessions understands the power of rhetoric and alluring, but ultimately naïve, solutions. Although only nine percent of America’s prison population are in federal jails, mindsets and sentiment can impact state policy. Sessions knows this and will try to manipulate you, the voter, to undermine the rights of U.S. states to chart their own course. If he succeeds, all Americans will be worse off. Do not fall for it.
Matt Tyler is an economist who works to improve government effectiveness with a particular focus on social services. Tyler is a former management consultant, where he supported executives in developing and implementing strategy across financial services, telecommunications, manufacturing, postal services, and retail. He worked as an economist for Australia’s foreign service and as a policy adviser to the Federal Australian Labor Party on economic and social policy. He has also worked for Third Sector Capital Partners where he assisted with the construction of two Social Impact Bonds in Salt Lake City. He is currently completing a Master of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He tweets as @matt_b_tyler. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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