Less Time, Less Crime

Conservatives lead a movement toward “tough and smart” sentencing policies.

We are in the early stages of a sentencing revolution. Across the country, states seem to be racing each other to cast off their failed, budget-draining mandatory sentencing regimes in favor of smarter, more efficient alternatives. Surprisingly, this movement is being spearheaded by conservatives.

In 2007 the blood-red state of Texas, facing a skyrocketing prison population that would have required more than $1 billion for additional facilities, decided to shift resources to treatment programs. Gov. Rick Perry, a conservative Republican, called the move “tough and smart,” a view that was vindicated when both crime and incarceration rates dropped. Texas is continuing to enact evidence-based reforms that aim to rehabilitate offenders, such as hiring dozens of re-entry coordinators to help newly released inmates adjust to life outside prison, thereby reducing the number who commit new crimes and end up back behind bars. 

Before leaving office last year, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, also a Republican, signed a comprehensive reform bill that diverts low-risk, nonviolent offenders into community corrections programs rather than state prisons. The new law will save money while helping offenders make the transition back into their communities.

In the first few months of this year, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Oklahoma hopped on the reform bandwagon. Not one of those states was carried by Barack Obama in 2008. The governors pushing hardest for reform right now include Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and Ohio’s John Kasich. All three are beloved by conservatives.

Skeptics say the conservative conversion has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with saving money. Even if that were true, so what? Corrections spending is totally out of hand; according to the Pew Center on the States, it is now the second fastest growing line item in state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. As the UCLA criminologist Mark Kleiman told the Boston Phoenix earlier this year, budget reduction might be “the least good reason” to support sentencing reform, but “in this case, the goal of saving money, and the goal of not keeping people in cages, gets you to the same place.”

Some traditionally blue states also have arrived at that place. In 2009 New York finally overthrew the nearly 40-year-old Rockefeller drug laws, a grotesque set of mandatory minimum sentencing rules that the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, back in 1979, called “a fiasco” and “the epitome of the belief in treating a social or medical problem with jail and the billy club.” Months after New York acted, Rhode Island abandoned its drug-related mandatory minimums.

Cost is not the sole factor in these changes. None of these states has decided to roll the dice with public safety. Rather, they are looking for ways to keep crime under control more efficiently. In fact, many of these debates demonstrate that policy makers are familiar with the last three decades of criminal justice research, which shows punishment is a more effective deterrent when it is swift and certain rather than severe, and that a vibrant parole system with effective re-entry programs is a better way to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders than making them languish in prison.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Congress is behind the curve. The rising federal prison population has pushed federal facilities to 35 percent over capacity. Half of all prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory sentences. There is no parole, and early release for good behavior is limited. Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the federal system, both morally and financially, is the unwillingness to let the frail and elderly go home to die.

In 2010, to its credit, Congress finally reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The gap, created in the mid-1980s under a Republican administration and Democratic Congress, had become a symbol of all that is wrong in federal sentencing. It was enacted without study or debate, its requirement of mandatory prison terms for minor offenders was draconian, and its uneven application devastated minority communities. 

By the time the bill to shrink the disparity came to the floor of the U.S. House, well-known conservatives, including Grover Norquist and Ward Connerly, wrote in support of reform. No one in either chamber voted against it, and only one House Republican spoke in opposition.

Looking forward, state reformers probably will continue to set the pace. New efforts to scale back mandatory sentencing laws are already under way in states as diverse as Massachusetts and Florida. Prospects at the federal level remain less clear. The Obama Justice Department has proposed some policy fixes that would slightly reduce the prison population, but it also has signaled a willingness to consider new mandatory minimums for various crimes du jour. Perhaps more ominous, the one Republican to speak against the crack reform bill was Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Smith is the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 

Julie Stewart (Julie@famm.org) is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national sentencing reform organization based in Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    SEPTEMBER TECTONIC PLATE SHIFT WEST TO EAST – Point Counter – Point [HTS vs. REGULA]

    REGULA SAYS: I think your expectations as to how much the [UN] United Nations vote for a Palestinian state will decide are too high. While hopefully the world will acknowledge that Palestinian state, and Palestine will become a member of the [UN], the American – Israeli Military Industrial Complex – the [EMPIRE] intends to veto it and justify its veto with the same hypocritical assertions that the [EMPIRE] standpoint of the pre-67 borders as starting point for negotiations was always clear, but that the final borders could only be established by negotiation. The Emperor lobbied The Gift from God to accept that starting point, in an effort to pre-empt the [UN] vote and the isolation it will likely bring for the [EMPIRE] and [The Pure Jewish State]. The rest of the world will not likely be fooled by these maneuvers. But they do give an opening to Turkey as mediator.

    HTS REPLY: We disagree the [UN] General Assembly vote will in fact isolate [EMPIRE], the question will be what the continued damage will be, will it be the end of the [UN], a recruitment tool for forces against the [EMPIRE] and [The Pure Jewish State], not only in the [ME] Middle East but around the globe, as the [EMPIRE] is seen as hypocritical and nothing more, we feel the [UN] vote will stand as a black mark, against everything that it had claimed to stand for, no we totally disagree about the blow back that will occur caused by the Veto Vote by the [EMPIRE] in support of the [Pure Jewish State].

    REGULA SAYS: Neither Turkey nor the [EU] European Union, are particularly involved in the Central and South Asian pipeline jungle. That is a game of chess between the [EMPIRE] and the [PDRC] Peoples Democratic Republic of China. The [EU] wants a diversification of its oil and gas suppliers, but without more wars.

    HTS REPLYS: Sorry to clue you, but in fact the Cold War is once again heating up and it may already be the beginning of [WWIII] World War Three , as [EMPIRE] warships are moving into the Black Sea, as they had done in the Republic of Georgia [6] Day war, and working to place [ABM] Anti-Ballistic Missile sites into Poland, and on the other side of the Pearl Nuclear Choke Chain Necklace, the [EMPIRE] has demanded a meeting on June [21st] with the Japanese Central Government and wants an as early as possible start date for construction of its [V] pattern two-runway Okinawa over the objections of the citizens of Okinawa, as the [PDRC] is increasing its sophisticated nuclear submarine fleet size and deployment, modernizing its ballistic missiles systems while deploying its Carrier Killer missile system, and [GPS] Ground Positioning Satellite – blocking technology, to end [EMPIRE] regional hegemony in the South China Sea, and Indian Ocean, and break the Blue and Gold Trident Submarine Chain.

    REGULA SAYS: Turkey will neither make itself into a European doormat nor the bulwark of the east. Turkey is a member of [NATO], desires to become a member of the [EU], but also remain an independent, sovereign nation with the freedom to get along and engage in trade and cultural relations with its neighbors Iran, Syria and Iraq, independent of [EMPIRE] policies and sanctions. To reconcile these complex pressures, Turkey chose a role as mediator of the precarious east-west tensions:

    To show the [EU] the benefit of relations with the [ME], Iran and Turkey as the connecting link: that is what Turkey will contribute to the [EU] if accepted;

    The benefit of Israeli-Palestinian peace through a genuine, independent and sovereign Palestinian state, based on just allocation of land and therefore the necessity of all world powers to act to stop Israeli expansionism, because it is required to prevent a third world war;

    To show the non-viability of an independent Kurdish state - it would take land from Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq and rather than resolve the Kurdish problem, such a Kurdish state would become a point of constant instability because it would open the affected countries to undue [EMPIRE] pressure and subversion;

    To strengthen its own national and international standing as an emerging economy and stable, prosperous Muslim democracy in order to continue developing Turkey; And to change its constitution to lessen the political power of the military in conclusion of Turkey's transition from a military state to a free democracy.

    HTS SAYS: We disagree once again, it is for the [UN] United Nations to be any type of Mediator, Turkey can not walk the tight rope between the East and the West, and hope to survive, it may work at times in the role of Mediator but not in a continual fashion. We feel that Turkey is Islamic and its major role is to the East and not the West, but do to its location, can act as more of a fascinator more than a mediator, more of a conduit between the West to the East, laying out the welcome mat to the West while acting as a Bulwark of protection to the East. As far as Kurdistan and the Kurdish problem it is being fueled by the pipelines and it is fool hardy not to see it.

    REGULA SAYS: The capacity of any mediator is limited by the willingness of the parties in dispute or at the weaker end to see the danger and act to prevent it themselves as much as possible. Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria [if] Assad falls, Libya [if] Gaddafi demises, will have to make a real effort to find and support strong leaders and refuse [EMPIRE] interference and subversion. Turkey can then support them visa - vie the [EU] and the [EMPIRE] based on the qualifications of those leaders, and yes, Turkey will stand up for those leaders and any parties shunned by the [EMPIRE] based on their role in the resistance. But it can do so only if there are strong leaders put forth by those countries. It is not in the capacity of the mediator to prevent the [EMPIRE] from installing puppet leaders if there isn't any alternative. What Turkey has to do for itself, is to protect its own interests, namely to leave all roads to the east and to the west open, albeit without cowardice. That is vital for its prosperity. Turkey showed that it has that strength.

    HTS REPLYS: Again Turkey should only act as a conduit and facilitator, from the East to the West not as a mediator the [UN] is the correct forum for mediations, Turkey should only facilitate the process, not mediate it. We see no happy ending in this with the current tightening of the Nuclear Choke Chain Necklace String of Pearls now underway by the [EMPIRE], and its behind the scenes support of a Kurdish Independent State, we feel you are seeing things thru rose colored glasses, the Necklace is tightening and the Cold War is once again heating up if not the beginning of [WWIII], we still support that in September, the concept that tectonic plates of change will shift, from West to East, the only question afterwards will be the after – shocks and change in geography.

    HERCULE TRIATHLON SAVINIEN

  • Geoff Petersen||

    love it. more.
    ...in your pants

  • ||

    Who is Regula?

  • Lyndon Hermyle LaRouche, Jr.||

    I blame the Brits.

  • Auntie Semitic||

    No... no... It's the Jooooooos!

  • MWG||

    *That's what she said.*

  • Underground||

    MNG.

    Give me your address, I want to murder your dumbfuck face, you piece of shit.

  • Grandpa Whithers||

    Thank godyou showed up.

  • johnl||

    SVP Hercule, save these for top posts by regulars (Peter, Mike, Matt, Nick, Jesse, Brian, Jacob, Ron, Katie, and apologies to anyone I left off) rather than first time contributors.

  • rather||

    I'm not sure the fact that someone says they love the jesus guy is reason enough to let them out of prison for slicing-and-dicing another human being.

    Forgiveness is overrated

  • MFawful||

    In other news, crime declined to its lowest rate in 45 years in 2010. I guess at some point all the potential criminals were already locked up on drugs charges.

  • ||

    "crime declined to its lowest rate in 45 years"........................................................................

    L.............O..............L................................................!

  • johnl||

    Or serving in the legislature.

  • ||

    The piece is a bit short on quantification. I don't see a single reference to how much sentences have actually been reduced in any jurisdiction.

    I suspect a lot of puff and pomp; "re-entry coordinators" and a bunch of hoo-de-hoo about "community" and "diversion" without much in the way of measurable reductions in baleful size of "The Complex."

    Give me a ring when they actually start mothballing old prisons and stop building new ones. Until then, save the confetti.

  • Jim||

    How can I get in on this supposed "hoo-de-hoo"?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    If they want to avoid people ending up back in prison, they should stop making these people permanent criminals, by sealing their records when they complete the sentence.

  • DK||

    Would it help all that much? Even if court records are sealed, the crimes probably ended up in something like a regional newspaper. Data mining would easily reveal that a particular person had committed a crime.

  • LarryA||

    Working on the back end is good, but it would also be nice to see movement on the front end. Like by repealing laws incarcerating people for victimless crimes.

  • MrGuy||

    The end will eventually justify the mean.

  • Cytotoxic||

    This is good but strange. I always expected conservatives would be way more willing to budge on the War on Drugs before excessive sentencing.

  • shox pas cher||

    sweet!

  • Res Publica Americana||

    There's no such thing as a victimless crime. Statists gon't get that, and won't get that until they're skull-fucked out of office, one way or another. But this is definitely a good development.

  • mbt scarpe||

    There's no such thing as a victimless crime. Statists gon't get that, and won't get that until they're skull-fucked out of office, one way or another. But this is definitely a good development

  • زفات||

    thank you

  • granite countertop||

    Every day we face with countertop,you can have a high quality of life with granite countertop of yalitongstone,but we will also very pleased if you can see Huaxingstone's granite countertop.

  • air max||

    is good

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement