Criminal Justice Reform–Not Just a Cause for Progressives


Last week, the NAACP unveiled a new report on incarceration in the United States. Entitled Misplaced Priorities, it details exactly how state and federal spending decisions have led to America's dubious distinction as the most locked-up society on earth, even as our communities simultaneously became less safe.

For years, progressives have decried the “tough on crime” spending priorities that favor incarceration over education. But recently, our chorus of allies has expanded.

Standing next to me on the dais of the National Press Club when we released the report were some well-known conservatives, such as Grover Norquist and the former head of the American Conservative Union, David Keene. They are among the growing number of voices on the right who understand that our budget-busting criminal justice apparatus should be held to the same conservative standards of effectiveness as any other government institution.

Needless to say, the system has failed to withstand cost-benefit scrutiny.

The conservative shift away from the “tough on crime” mentality that has permeated public policy for decades is nothing short of remarkable.

In January, no less of a right-wing luminary than Newt Gingrich surprised many in Washington by co-authoring, with California Republican Pat Nolan, an Op-Ed in The Washington Post titled, “Prison Reform: A Smart Way to Save Money and Lives.”

Their thesis? The current practice of locking up nonviolent offenders is expensive, ineffective and immoral.

The NAACP may take issue with many of Mr. Gingrich's policy positions; but on this, we could not agree more.

With just about all of our 50 state capitals facing tough budget decisions, now is the time to act with courage and creativity to save taxpayer dollars, reduce prison populations and ultimately make our streets safer.

Researchers have long known that drug treatment is a smart alternative for non-violent offenders. It is also significantly cheaper.

Likewise, educational opportunities are cost-effective, and lead to reductions in neighborhood crime. Relatively minor investments in treatment for the mentally ill mean fewer people in wasting away in jail and more contributing members in society.

That the Conservative movement acknowledges this is groundbreaking.

Gingrich and Nolan themselves referred to it in The Post as “a seismic shift,” but it shouldn't be surprising.

Conservative principles of social accountability, fiscal accountability and personal responsibility argue strongly against a system as expensive and disincentivizing as our criminal justice system.

Conservative leaders therefore have an important role to play by leading the way to downsized prisons? and doing so in a way that maintains public safety and makes better use of public money.

We now have an historic opportunity to shift the public sentiment away from draconian “tough on crime” policies and toward “smart on crime” alternatives to safer, healthier communities.

Robert Rooks is Director of NAACP Criminal Justice Programs. He welcomes comments from readers.

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