This commentary originally appeared in the National Review on October 16, 2015.
By Adam Brandon, Timothy Head, Grover Norquist & Marc A. Levin
If you are a conservative and you are not behind major reforms to the criminal-justice system, you are terribly late to the party. But we wouldn’t blame you — Washington is finally catching up to years of successful reforms in red states.
Consider the conservative stalwarts behind the most recent federal legislation. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) has introduced a bill that expands the existing “safety valve” exception to some mandatory minimum sentences. The bill focuses on rehabilitation and treatment of offenders in the federal prison system so they will have the opportunity to become productive citizens when they reenter society. It would also enhance public safety while addressing the costs associated with incarceration. Those are sound, conservative principles.
In the House, Repsresentative Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) has introduced companion legislation on sentencing reform. And let’s not forget that Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) introduced a comprehensive criminal-justice reform bill, the SAFE Justice Act, earlier this year.
No one who is paying attention would call Grassley, Goodlatte, and Sensenbrenner anything other than conservative standard-bearers.
Rather than a hastily constructed package of reforms, outlined recently in the Weekly Standard, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, currently slated for markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been under negotiation for months. This is no rush to pass legislation but rather a drive to catch up to conservative states that have successfully reformed their prison systems and lowered their crime rates over the past decade.
Another criticism, leveled in an attempt to scare conservatives, is to point to the falling crime rates in the 1990s as proof that all of the policies of the past were effective. While it’s true that crime rates, including violent-crime rates, have dropped significantly since the 1990s and continued to fall as recently as 2014, the best research gives incarceration at most 25 percent of the credit for the crime drop we have enjoyed. Better policing, more private security, anti-theft technologies, and the decline of the crack-cocaine market are among the other important contributors. There is broad consensus that we have passed a point of diminishing returns with respect to incarceration. The more they are used, the less effective prison cells become.
States, the laboratories of democracy, have put this theory to the test. Texas passed the first in a series of criminal-justice reforms in 2007. Rather than build new prisons or expand existing ones, lawmakers in the Lone Star State appropriated $241 million that would have been used to build or expand prisons and instead used it to develop and implement programs for low-level, nonviolent offenders who, instead of being incarcerated, received drug treatment and rehabilitation. The funding also supported education and work-training programs for those who did serve time in prison.
The results are undeniable. Texas’s crime rates are at their lowest since 1968, and the state shut down three prisons and scrapped plans to build new ones. Seeing this success, other conservative states — including Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina — have implemented similar reforms in recent years. Oklahoma and Utah enacted similar reform measures in their most recent legislative sessions.
Conservatives have helped pave the way on criminal-justice reform. Not only does it make fiscal sense, it also reunites families and strengthens communities that have been torn apart by a big-government, one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice.
Those who demand that Congress stand by and do nothing ignore the profound successes of the states. This is a rare opportunity for Congress to follow the lead of conservative states that have enacted reasonable but effective reforms to the justice system, and it couldn’t come at a more important time.