“Right on Crime”: Accounting for Accountability

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Some of the nation's most prominent conservatives are meeting in DC today to chart a “tough and smart” criminal justice agenda.

Reduced spending. Limited government. Accountability. Conservatives campaigned on these fundamentals during the 2010 election, and voters rewarded them with control of at least one chamber in 19 state legislatures and a 63-seat gain in the U.S. House of Representatives.

What it will this mean for criminal justice policy?

In the past, these conservative principles have too often been forgotten here, with “lock 'em up and throw away the key” the default mindset.

However, prominent conservatives are charting a new course. Leaders like former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist have signed the statement of principles for the Right on Crime campaign. Led by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation , the project was launched this month to offer an improved approach to criminal justice that is both tough and smart.

One reason Right on Crime is needed is that taxpayers have not been getting a good return on their investment when it comes to criminal justice spending, and historically few have held the system accountable for that – not even conservatives. In most cases, funding for prison facilities is allocated according to volume, rather than outcomes. In other words, more prisoners mean more money.

As a result, we have created a system that grows when it fails rather than one with incentives to deliver the best public safety return for every taxpayer dollar spent. The result: one in 31 Americans is under correctional supervision and one in 100 is in prison, which means a bigger government footprint and a heavier burden on taxpayers.

A certain level of prison capacity is clearly essential for public safety, but the question is whether spending the next dollar on putting another low-risk, non-violent offender in prison makes us safer than spending it on better probation supervision, drug courts, or policing.

Diminishing Returns

The limited data available suggests that the boom in the size and cost of prisons over recent decades has reached a point of diminishing returns. Research reveals that an increased incarceration rate–and its increased cost–does not necessarily correlate to increased public safety. From 2000 to 2007, New York achieved a 25 percent reduction in crime while its incarceration rate fell 16 percent. During this same period, Florida's crime rate dropped only 11 percent even though it increased its incarceration rate by 16 percent.

Some states have begun to think outside the cell, transitioning to an approach of rewarding results. Arizona enacted performance-based probation funding in 2008 that gives a share of the savings to county probation departments when they reduce both the number of probationers revoked to prison and the number convicted of a new offense. Within a year, the Grand Canyon State saw a 12.8 percent decrease in the number of probationers who returned to prison, as both new crimes by probationers and revocations for rules violations declined.

Conservatives advocate for this kind of accountability in nearly every other area of government. Why not criminal justice?

Shift in Texas

Texas, renowned for its “Tough on Crime” approach, began shifting its funding paradigm and moving towards greater accountability in 2005. Essentially, the Lone Star State linked adult probation department grants to performance instead of only the number of probationers. Since then, the state's crime rate has dropped 10.8 percent, reaching its lowest point since 1973.

Through this measure and other efforts to strengthen community corrections, Texas avoided $2 billion in prison costs. Moreover, nearly every participating department reduced the number of probationers who re-entered prison as a result of rules violations or new crimes.

Incentivizing community-based approaches to the extent they reduce re-offending is a no-lose proposition. By holding accountable and reforming amenable non-violent offenders in the community and prioritizing prisons for dangerous and career criminals, we both limit the size of government and make it more cost-effective at improving public safety.

Conservatives earned votes last November because they stood against wasteful spending, big government, and a lack of accountability. Now is the time to fight for conservative principles in the realm of criminal justice. With the right policy approach, we can cut costs, make our communities safer, and introduce accountability to a government bureaucracy that too often has gone unchecked.

Marc Levin is Director of the Center for Effective Justice as the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Photo by Gabe Skidmore via Flickr.

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