States Consider a More Libertarian Approach to Crime

And do so in bipartisan fashion.


SACRAMENTO — Leaders in the nation's two most populous states have waged a rhetorical grudge match over their respective political approaches. In California, dominant Democrats are proud of their efforts to pioneer social and environmental policy. In Texas, majority Republicans boast about their commitment to business development and freedom.

Anyone who has followed the back and forth – hitting a low point last year when Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) bought radio ads to lure businesses eastward and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) responded with a crude comment – would have been shocked by an event in the California Capitol on Thursday.

At a budget and fiscal review hearing, liberal Democratic senators praised the work of a conservative Republican who explained what California can learn from Texas in the area of criminal-justice reform. As humorist Dave Barry would say, "I am not making this up."

California has been under federal court order to reduce its overcrowded prisons. It's been more than two years since the state implemented "realignment," which moved less-serious offenders from the state system to county jails. Leaders of both parties are upset by soaring prison costs and recidivism rates. The crisis has led to a newfound openness to look anywhere, even to Texas, for ideas.

While the California system is bursting at its seams, Texas has closed three prisons. Both states have crime rates that are lower than they had been decades ago, but Texas' rate is falling faster than national trends. Crime in California is edging up slightly and its prison population is growing. California pays twice what Texas pays per year to incarcerate an inmate.

"In spite of Texas' well-deserved reputation as this tough-on-crime state, and some of us would like to think perhaps because of it, the lawmakers in Texas … have seen fit to begin to innovate in the area of criminal-justice reform," said former California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. He is a Republican who now leads policy efforts for the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, which promotes free-markets.

"These reforms have now saved the state of Texas to date some $3 billion in taxpayer outlays and have saved Texas taxpayers from having to build another 17,000 prison beds," according to DeVore. And it's been done without reducing sentences. In the past, the state had been taking the same approach as most other states – building more prisons and spending lots more money. It decided to change course.

DeVore's foundation spearheads a policy effort known as "Right on Crime," which is designed to move conservatives away from a purely "law and order" approach. Some of its goals: enable criminals to pay restitution to victims and otherwise take responsibility for their actions, evaluate the size of the criminal-justice bureaucracy, preserve family involvement and reserve prison time for crimes that threaten public safety.

Consider that Perry, a conservative who ran for the GOP presidential nomination, recently considered the decriminalization of drugs because "it keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives." Times are changing.

These "conservative" principles really aren't much different from what many thoughtful "liberals" and "libertarians" advocate. Sen. Mark Leno (D), a self-described San Francisco liberal, encouraged DeVore's foundation to bring its nationwide efforts to California.

"Conservatives need to look at the criminal-justice system with the same eye they look at other aspects of big government," DeVore told me before the hearing, noting that conservatives have too often given the prison system a blank check. DeVore also challenged liberal sacred cows: The prison-guards union has made it tough to rein in costs and California's business-licensing laws make it hard for parolees to get jobs. His research shows that employment is crucial to reducing recidivism, with Texas parolees three times more likely to hold jobs than California parolees.

Both states are more similar than anyone would like to admit, DeVore noted. Despite the stereotypes, both are large, vibrant and diverse states with a vested interest in reducing crime, saving money and creating a more cost-effective and humane criminal-justice system. It's no crime to learn from each other.

NEXT: Connecticut Investigating Potential Role of Drone in Fatal Car Crash

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 or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “And do so in bipartisan fashion.”

    Begins with a P and that rhymes with T and that spells TROUBLE!

  2. Restitution based justice is a part of the Japanese system, and seems to work well there, too. I’d love to see more of this, along with preserving family involvement, in our justice system nation wide.

  3. Economic Prosperity is probably more responsible for Texas’ falling crime rate than anything else Texas does.

    It’s amazing how people with jobs tend to commit less crimes than people without jobs.

    1. I was thinking the same thing when I read this

  4. Make Prison Crises History, Give #Victims What they Deserve, Use Smarter Crime Control – Prevent violence, save taxes –

  5. I will give you a libertarian approach to crime; understand that justice is a commodity like any other. That is, there is only so much of it available at any one time. So you can do a lot of cases with a little justice or a few cases with a lot. But you can’t do both.

    If we only had to try say a hundred cases a year, chances are we could get all of them right and do justice in them. As that number rises, the chances of justice being done in each individual case gets smaller and smaller as the available justice is stretched thinner and thinner.

    So every time we make something a crime, we reduce the chances of getting a just result in every future case.

    1. ^This. You don’t even need to be a libertarian to understand that prosecuting crime takes resources, and that if you make more and more things illegal, those resources will be diverted away from real crimes (murders, rapes, thefts).

      1. “You don’t even need to be a libertarian to understand that prosecuting crime takes resources”

        I think you’ll find quite a few Liberals who don’t understand the concept of opportunity costs.

  6. My Democrat friends try to crow about their progress on gay marriage and mj legalization but I quickly remind them that both were libertarian wins despite the roadblocks thrown up by those jackasses.

    1. And the fight against Prop 8 was lead by the Koch Brothers.

      1. Not a Koch Bros. fan myself. I don’t know why they’re considered ‘libertarian,’ for this and other reasons.

        1. Mongo|2.7.14 @ 3:50PM|#
          “Not a Koch Bros. fan myself. I don’t know why they’re considered ‘libertarian,’ for this and other reasons.”

          They were AGAINST Prop 8 and Prop 8 outlawed gay marriage.
          Against Prop 8 was for gay marriage to be recognized by the state.

    2. Libertarians are for the state getting out of the marriage licensing business entirely, not creating special rules for one miniority

      1. JeremyR|2.7.14 @ 7:50PM|#
        “Libertarians are for the state getting out of the marriage licensing business entirely, not creating special rules for one miniority”

        Hell of a job on that strawman; you got him dead to rights.

        1. Why not privatize the ‘marriage’ — or whatever it gets renamed — process?

  7. CALIFORNIA: “Drug dealers and thugs running around loose creates a lot of negative energy, man. I know you sister-marrying rednecks have a loosey-goosey attitude of softness toward crime, but the only way to restore balance to the universe is to lock them up and throw away the key.”

    TEXAS: “Looky here, you hippie asshole, we don’t cotton to your punitive, reactionary criminal-justice policies. Here in Texas, we believe criminals can repent and reform, praise Jesus! And we reserve our scarce prison space for the recidivatin’ criminals who really need it. We don’t stuff ’em in like sardines, blightin’ their future and precludin’ the possibility of rehabilitation. So y’all can take your excessive sentences and mosey on outta here.”

    1. TEXAS: “Or we just Hang ’em.”

    2. “And we need labor in the oil fields to boot”.

  8. Another great place to start:

    Jury Nullification

  9. As with most laws, my first questions are: What do you want this law to accomplish?; and Does it work? Most laws do not accomplish what they were intended to do, and many just make things worse. Most drug laws just create criminals.

  10. Obd2life is a professional online obd2 supplier. It provides high-quality OBD2 Scanners with competitive prices.

  11. I cringed while watching reasonTV’s interview with David Simon where he lambasted the idea of privatizing prisons. As it stands right now, prisoners are treated as slave labour in most prison work programs, and it still costs an arm and a leg to house, feed and provide support. Why not treat a prison like a business where the prisoners are employees (albeit of the forced variety) rather than inmates? Put them to work and pay them a market wage for their efforts. Prisoners can then use their legitimately earned income to pay restitution to the victims’ families (if required), send money home to their families (thereby curbing the vicious cycle of prison and poverty) or purchase luxuries for their time on the inside.

    It’s time to stop using prison as a tool for deterrence and punishment for crime and start using it as a last-ditch resort to separate those who are actually a danger to society from those who are not.

    1. Privately-run prisons are subject to the same supply-and-demand economics as any other business. If the supply of prisoners isn’t enough, then jobs have to be cut. And the lobbyists for Big Prison Inc. (not to mention the prison-guard unions) would rather keep the convicts coming in than lose their money train. Thus, new crime laws created along with new prisoners who aren’t a danger to society.

      What, you actually thought the private prison people would just roll over and wither away if there was a decrease in crime and convicts?

      1. Of course any economic principles can be warped and corrupted by lobbying and cronyism (TARP anyone?) If we factored that into our reasoning then absolutely nothing is a good idea. If prisons aren’t able to maintain their competitive advantage, then they should shut down and have their prisoners move to another prison, or have two prisons merge to share resources, etc… just like in the real world.

  12. “Tough on Crime” policies have been abject failures, using any metric one desires.

    It’s past time that we started being “Smart on Crime.”
    The first step? Understanding that there are only two crimes; aggressing against a person or aggressing against their property. No other actions can rightfully be called crimes, due to a lack of a victim.

    No Victim, No Crime.

    1. Oh, sure. Just break it down to something simple,understandable and reasonable. What about all the liberty and unemployed lawyers that would create.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.