Prisons

Are We "On the Cusp of Getting Bipartisan Prison-Sentencing Reform"?

"Oh, you mean this is real. This isn't something from Vermont."

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According to National Review's Betsy Woodruff, Hill aides are telling her that "we're on the cusp of getting bipartisan prison-sentencing reform." If they're right, that's a tribute, as Woodruff's article shows, to carefully crafted left/right alliances. In this case, the team includes not just the civil libertarians on each side of the aisle, but social conservatives who have learned the unfortunate effects of incarceration from their friends in prison ministries, plus some hard-nosed budget-cutters who are trying to save a buck.

Here's an excerpt from her piece:

I know, I know—Alcatraz isn't in Texas. Humor me.

Texas legislators acted in 2007 after the corrections department told them it would need to spend the money to add upwards of 17,000 beds over five years….So the state passed reforms designed to reduce recidivism by creating alternatives to incarceration. Low-risk, nonviolent drug offenders were getting sent to prison because judges and prosecutors couldn't find anything else to do with them, according to [Marc] Levin [of the Texas Public Policy Foundation]. Prison in Texas costs $50 per person per day, but alternatives are much, much cheaper: Probation is only $3.50 per day, drug courts are about $6 to $8 per day, and an electronic GPS runs at about $10 per day.

So policymakers realized they could make a dramatic increase in spending on incarceration alternatives and still save tons of money. And that's not even touching on the fact that, as Levin points out, incarceration can sometimes be counterproductive. Alternatives to incarceration mean that people convicted of nonviolent crimes can spend time with their families instead of in prison.

The general consensus was that Texas's reforms worked. In 2004, a little over 30 percent of the state's released inmates ended up incarcerated again within three years. By 2007, that number had dropped to 24 percent. Instead of adding thousands and thousands of beds, the state closed three adult and six juvenile prisons.

From a political perspective, the state's success was incredibly significant — not just because it showed that prison reform was workable as a policy, but also because it was Texas.

[Grover] Norquist tells NRO that when he testified at a hearing on criminal-justice reform in Florida, "When I would say, 'You know, in Texas they did this,' all of a sudden the Republicans on the committee would look up and go, 'Oh, you mean this is real. This isn't something from Vermont.'"

We've been covering the conservative side of the prison reform movement here at Reason for a while—generally favorably, though we haven't shied from criticizing it for the ways it stops short of the changes we favor. Thus far, the movement's victories have tended to come on the state level; if Woodruff's sources are right that we're about to see a win in Congress too, that's a big jump forward.