For many years, criminal justice reform has stagnated in a ideological gridlock, with conservatives seeking harsher punishments and liberals touting prevention and rehabilitation. A big step toward breaking that split occurred 10 days before Christmas, when a group of conservatives did the extraordinary, admitting that they may have been wrong on some aspects of anticrime policy and seeking consensus on key issues.
A new group called Right on Crime urged looking at the money spent on criminal justice and its effectiveness. “For too long, conservatives have allowed more money and more prisons to be the default solution to our public safety challenges,” said
Brooke Rollins of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is leading a national movement to change the conversation on crime and justice.
Rollins spoke at an unusual session in Washington, D.C., that featured not only conservative leaders like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, and Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship but also invited guests from liberal groups like the Open Society Institute, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Drug Policy Alliance.
Now the question is whether the group’s new statement of six principles can take hold in conservative ranks as well as be embraced by liberals. Removing crime as a divisive political issue may happen, at least for now, in an era of relatively more concern in the United States over issues of the economy, health care, and foreign wars. At the launch of the Right on Crime campaign, Norquist said most modern political candidates realize that crime “isn’t the magic button they once thought it was” to paint competitors as “soft” on criminals.
Conservatives generally favor less government, but they agree that criminal justice, along with national defense, are legitimate functions of government. Instead of “shouting at each other,” he said, those on both ends of the ideological spectrum should work to make sure that taxpayers’ money devoted to criminal justice is spent wisely. ‘How do we keep the public safe on limited budgets?” asked Nolan. “This is an issue that will unite the left and the right.” In a commentary marked by strong rhetoric, Nolan called the conservative group’s emergence a “seismic shift” and a “game changer.”
The group’s leaders indicated that just about major criminal justice policy could be examined, from law enforcement to courts to prisons and sentencing to crime victims’ rights. Right on Crime also is concerned with “overcriminalization,” the tendency of government at all levels to try making every conceivable offense to society into a crime. One result is filling prisons and jails and sometimes having “the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders–making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
Right on Crime certainly has intellectual heft. Besides those who spoke this week, such notables as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, one-time hardline criminologist John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylania, and former Republican Justice Department official Viet Dinh are among those who have signed on.
The group has more than rhetoric to back up its principles. Led by a Texas think tank, it touts the example of Texas, a former leader in prison building that has turned to spending money instead on rehabilitative approaches and still has seen its crime rate drop. In brief, the immediate goal of Right on Crime is to export the Texas model to other states. A few states already have embraced elements of it, notably Kansas and South Carolina.
This could be the right time to press for reforms, because a wave of Republican governors is about to take over in states that are hard pressed for public funds. Already, Gov.-elect John Kasich of Ohio, a former conservative leader in Congress, has said that sentencing policies are on the table in his state, which spends a large chunk of its budget on criminal justice functions.
It is not yet clear which other states may follow the lead. The Pew Center on the States and Council of State Governments are pushing in several states for changes that coincide with many of the Right on Crime approaches. Still, budget woes could hamper the idea that spending on housing inmates should be shifted to non-prison rehabilitation like drug treatment. Some states may decide that just trimming the inmate rolls is enough, an approach that critics say will mostly encourage repeat criminality.
Leadership in Washington is also lacking so far. The Obama administration has given priority to other issues, although its Justice Department supports many of the Right on Crime principles. At least one key conservative leader, incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tx.) has not endorsed the Right on Crime agenda. In fact, Smith opposed one of the compromises that was touted at the conservative group’s launch this week, the new law that reduces the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.
There is bound to be some continued disagreement, too, on spending issues. At the Right on Crime launch, the liberal Drug Policy Alliance assailed federal anticrime grants to states and localities as encouraging too much drug-law enforcement. Such grants are popular with governors, mayors, and police chiefs who believe that Washington should put some money where the anticrime rhetoric is.
For now, merely changing an overheated political debate on what to do about lawbreaking into what Nolan called a “rational conversation about crime” may be enough. Nolan, a former California state legislator, recalled that in years past, lawmakers tended to “vote on things because they were hot in the news.” A more scientific approach–advancing anticrime programs that provably work–is supported by both the conservative and liberal camps.
Among other things, 2011 will be a year of Republican ascendancy in many states and in Congress. While “Republican” and “conservative” are not synonymous–Right on Crime avoidings political party labels–the combination of more Republicans, less public money, and a new advocacy group aiming at a being “tough on criminal justice spending” could make it a year of significant change.