This commentary originally appeared in Fox News on March 2, 2015.

There's not much the right and left agree on these days, but one notable exception seems to be criminal justice reform. 

Take President Obama’s budget proposal for 2016: arriving in the midst of a growing chorus of bipartisan support for alternatives to incarceration, he includes a community policing initiative and expanded pretrial diversion programs. 

Conservatives should appreciate this; as Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, “community corrections has an important role to play in promoting diversion and alternative sentencing models that promote public safety and prevent future generations from entering the criminal justice system.”

We also seem to agree that federal government intervention alone won't cut it, because, as President Obama and Senator Portman both recognize, the problems with the criminal justice system start earlier, in local jails. Too many Americans are being deprived of their liberty, held in jail when they shouldn’t be, and the result is out-of-control local government spending on ineffective criminal justice systems—funds that could be better put to use elsewhere.

More than 70 major conservative leaders, including William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Asa Hutchinson, and David Keene, have endorsed aRight on Crime statement of principles that argues that criminal justice systems ought to be subject to the same cost-benefit scrutiny applied to other government programs. Yet, the criminal justice systems in many local communities do not meet that test. Improving these systems will ease the strain on taxpayers and ensure that people are incarcerated only because they pose a public safety threat or are a flight risk.

Over the past three decades, spending related to building and running local jails has increased by 235 percent, a faster rate of growth than for nearly all other public services. Annual admissions into jails during that period nearly doubled to 11.7 million. The percentage of arrests that result in jail time jumped from 51 percent to 95 percent.

Three out of four people jailed today are there for nonviolent crimes. More than six out of ten have not been convicted of any crime. They are being held in jail for increasingly long periods while waiting until they finally get a trial or agree to plea bargain, unable to afford bails that may be as low as $250 or $500.

In the past 30 years, the average length of stay in local jails has increased by 64 percent. People land in jail for all sorts of reasons, like driving with a suspended license or not paying child support—a punishment that does not help people who are jailed to pay what they owe and provide for their families. 

In Texas, where I live, some also serve out their fines in county jails, earning as little as $75 per day toward their debts. The system creates a modern day debtor’s prison, keeping those who are locked up from finding employment to better settle their debts, support their families, and contribute productively to local economies.

Jails also hold people who would be better, and more economically, served elsewhere. Six out of ten people in jail report symptoms of mental illness, and two-thirds suffer from substance abuse or dependence. Jails are not set up to provide treatment and should not be asked to do the job that professional community services can provide.

Jailing non-violent offenders as the first option actually is counterproductive in many cases and can lead to more serious crime. Someone unnecessarily held in jail can’t get to their job and may lose it as a result. He can’t take care of his children. She may not be able to keep up with her rent or other bills. He may be cut off from mental health or addiction treatment he normally would go to. Before long, he may be facing unemployment, homelessness, break-up of his family, or aggravated addiction problems, and that in turn may lead to more serious crime and longer incarceration—a ripple effect that increases state and federal prison spending.

The good news is that local communities are adopting more effective approaches in line with American values. 

In Texas, there are several efforts underway to provide alternatives to jail. Bexar County has set up a 24-hour crisis center that lowers the burden on jails. Houston’s police direct people arrested on marijuana-related charges to complete a 9 hour class or 8 hours of community service, a practice that will strengthen the city and divert about 2,000 people a year from jail. Lubbock has been implementing victim-offender mediation for decades, giving victims and their families the closure that long delays in the criminal justice system don’t provide.

Local officials who are looking for resources to plan and implement these kinds of improvements now have the benefit of the new Safety and Justice Challenge, a $75 million investment in justice reform from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that will focus on reducing incarceration in jails, reducing repeat offenses, and holding offenders accountable. This comes in the midst of an emergence of "unlikely alliances" committed to making real changes in our criminal justice system at the local, state, and national levels. Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, the ACLU and Grover Norquist, the Koch Brothers–they represent a real bipartisan movement toward reform.

The time is ripe for change. Improving local criminal justice systems will ultimately reduce costs for households and government alike, and better align our actions with our values of liberty, personal responsibility, and the potential for rehabilitation. 

We should seize this moment of collaboration and the availability of the best ideas and real investment across the ideological spectrum and put it to work in our communities. When local leaders step forward and work together, they will deliver a far better return on taxpayers’ investments in public safety.


Marc A. Levin is policy director for Right on Crime and director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.