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A Conservative Case for Prison Reform

(Note: This column originally ran in The New York Times.)

Conservatives should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs. Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.
Criminal justice reform
But it’s not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.

These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

The United States now has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners. Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate — everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole — was less than half that: 1 in every 77 adults.

The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985. It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Conservatives should be leading the way by asking tough questions about the expansion in prison spending over the past three decades.

Increased spending has not improved effectiveness. More than 40 percent of ex-convicts return to prison within three years of release; in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent.

Too many offenders leave prisons unprepared to re-enter society. They don’t get and keep jobs. The solution lies not only inside prisons but also with more effective community supervision systems using new technologies, drug tests and counseling programs. We should also require ex-convicts to either hold a job or perform community service. This approach works to turn offenders from tax burdens into taxpayers who can pay restitution to their victims and are capable of contributing child support.

The good news is that a national conservative movement to reform our criminal justice system, including volunteer pastoral counseling for prisoners and encouraging frequent contacts with family members, has been growing.

This Right on Crime campaign supports constitutionally limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility and free enterprise. Conservatives known for being tough on crime should now be equally tough on failed, too-expensive criminal programs. They should demand more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety and the well-being of all Americans.

Some prominent national Republican leaders who have joined this effort include Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the National Rifle Association leader David Keene and the former attorney general Edwin Meese III.

Right on Crime exemplifies the big-picture conservative approach to this issue. It focuses on community-based programs rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentencing policies and prison expansion. Using free-market and Christian principles, conservatives have an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice as an alternative to government-knows-best programs that are failing prisoners and the society into which they are released.

These principles work. In the past several years, there has been a dramatic shift on crime and punishment policy across the country. It really started in Texas in 2007. The state said no to building eight more prisons and began to shift nonviolent offenders from state prison into alternatives, by strengthening probation and parole supervision and treatment. Texas was able to avert nearly $2 billion in projected corrections spending increases, and its crime rate is declining. At the same time, the state’s parole failures have dropped by 39 percent.

Since then more than a dozen states have made significant changes to their sentencing and corrections laws, including Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ohio. Much of the focus has been on shortening or even eliminating prison time for the lowest-risk, nonviolent offenders and reinvesting the savings in more effective options.

With strong leadership from conservatives, South Dakota lawmakers passed a reform package in January that is expected to reduce costs by holding nonviolent offenders accountable through parole, probation, drug courts and other cost-effective programs.

By confronting this issue head on, conservatives are showing that our principles lead to practical solutions that make government less costly and more effective. We need to do more of that. Conservatives can show the way by impressing on more of our allies and political leaders that criminal justice reform is part of a conservative agenda.

Richard A. Viguerie is the chairman of and the author of “Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.”

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A large percentage of these people are in prison for non violent crimes.Our system has turned some otherwise productive members of society into criminals when ordinarily they would not be as such. Each type of offense should be dealt with differently as well. The reason many have a hard time getting jobs after they get out is the social stigma associated with prison even if the crime was a petty offense, and or they are truly reformed. This leads to a miserable life ever after. Strangely enough many violent offenders are released to do more harm to society at the same time. With such a large amount of our citizens in this seemingly inescapable predicament it seems to me that it is the system lacks common sense, and wastes lives, not to mention the damage to the families of the imprisoned, especially the children who grow up without a parent. The privatization of prisons only gives the corporate shareholders incentive to jail more for profits.

michigan prisons

I really believe our systems need to be revamped. I believe our system needs to look at the prisoners who are able to be paroled, who are seniors 55 plus or even 60 plus who are serving life with possible parole, who were good citizens and just made a quick mistake without it being premeditated, that sadly caused somebodies life. That they are truly sorry and have been excellent prisoners. If these men and women were released how much money would this save the state?? I don't believe these people would commit another crime at all. I am just saying thank you for letting me voice my opinion.

Conservative case for prison reform

About 78% of our national corrections population is already in alternatives (community supervision) rather than in prison. In some states it's as high as 90%. So I don't see this as a prison or criminal justice reform issue on your part (conservativeHQ, right on crime). I see it as an anti-incarceration issue.


Every time I hear this BS 25% of the worlds prisoners lie I want to spit. We have the ACTUAL lowest PUNISHMENT to re-offense rate of released offenders in the world. Most countries prisoners never SEE a criminal justice system, as they never see justice since they are summarily executed. Look to China and most Islamic nations, the former soviet block countries and the fact that over half the worlds nations are held by oppressive governments, so that statistic just holds NO validity what so ever! This is also does not take into consideration that the figure is people on paper NOT actually behind bars. That means those on parole, probation work release programs, court ordered programs of ANY type of regulation or supervision INCLUDING watch lists and half way houses.
Yet these same whiners are the ones who yell about how dangerous our country is or has become. We do not need reform, We NEED ENFORCEMENT. Harder and harsher penalties work for violent crimes we have them but they are not used. Compassion is for warranted situations not repeat offenders or those who's crimes are depraved or inhumane. A man who is constantly apologizing while robbing a convenience store, while at the same time stealing baby formula, bread and milk isn't necessarily a career criminal, but a rapist who urinates on his victim doesn't warrant compassion. This is where the "system" is screwed up. A convicted felon is stripped of civil rights in their conviction, yet the SCOTUS GRANTS them extra ordinary rights that we the people do not have. The right to a complete gym to become strong enough to over power their guards, works shops to build weapons, air conditioned living quarters, CABLE TV and INTERNET??? RIGHTS??? these are privileges WE MUST PAY for. and THEY MUST be removed from Prisons take the time used to give them structured days spent on education, and work farms or similar PROFITABLE ends that do not ALLOW for leisure time and remove the comforts of home. The system to do this IS already in place but is NOT being used. the Televisons are there, Closed Content can be supplied, remove the workout equipment and turn the yard into vegetable gardens, all the exercise a farmer needs comes from his livelihood... do the same here. MAKE THEM WORK TO EAT. MAKE THEM EARN THEIR KEEP Make the system PROFITABLE for the government. if you WISH to call this reform, fine, but the fact is it is JUST RETURNING to the way it used to be. call it singing for your supper...

What of Equal time in PRISON for Prosecutors and Police?

Paul Thomson, former Commonwealth Attorney of Winchester, was infamous for his "antics" while in office, including drug use and adultery. Fortunately, he got voted out of office, after he "convicted" at least two innocent men using extreme Brady Violations. One man is now dead, after he talked Tim Kaine into killing Eddie Bell, the other is still in prison, recently filed a Habeas in federal court because the Virginia court system is so terribly corrupt. In June 2010, I took some news reports and personal appeals from women to the Governor's office about the rampant immorality of lawyer Paul Thomson, and days later, a Special Prosecutor was named. While the Special Prosecutor was inept or dishonest in her "investigation", at least Paul Thomson got tried in the "Court of Public Opinion" where one of his drug suppliers read about his past misconduct. Six months later, and five days after I reported to the Virginia State Police some Police Notes I obtained that stated, "Paul Thomson is skimming money from drug dealers.", Thomson was arrested by the DEA, but on current charges not the one in the police notes, for Evidence Tampering, Witness Tampering, and Drug Possession, BUT, because he was super-politically and family connected to former Senator Harry Byrd, he got a down pillow plea deal, 38 months, and last month, Thomson was seen in Winchester again, only 19 months since he scheduled his entry. So the point in that, is WHEN do criminals who work in the criminal justice system get "EQUAL JUSTICE", that is to say, equal time that a non-Bar, non-Public Employee, non-Politically Connected "common citizen" get sentenced to serve? And what about the "police investigators" who perjure themselves, do Evidence Tampering, and Witness Tampering to allow the corrupt prosecutors to do their corrupt "convictions" by coerced Plea Bargains?

Prison time

I agree with you about the prisons the problem is they are full of people that are small time drug dealer and users that should be on supervised release program where they have to work or do community service until they find work unless they are notable to work according to Dr,s orders and they are trying to get disability. I am one that I think marijauna should be grown by licensed farmers an processed like tobacco and sold that way very heavily taxed like whiskey that way it would cut the smugglers and gang's out of it