It has never been more important for conservatives to hold the line on protecting our communities. In the midst of civil unrest, homicide rates spiking nationwide and unprecedented rates of drug use, the time is now to get our criminal justice system right.
That’s what Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is doing, as he emerges as a national leader on criminal justice reform. Tennessee will be a better state, and Tennesseans will be safer because of this.
Gov. Lee’s focus is exactly where it should be: Not on rhetoric, but on evidence-based policies proven to improve public safety.
During my 14-plus years as the Governor of Texas, I oversaw the comprehensive reform of the state’s criminal justice system. Together with Brooke Rollins and the conservative thought leaders at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, leadership in the Texas Legislature, and various stakeholders, we designed a model that began with the expressed declaration that Texas would not build new prisons. The then-current “lock ‘em up” Texas system would only fill those new prisons up, requiring Texans to pay for even more prisons, which was economically unsustainable for a fiscally conscious government.
More compellingly, we understood that simply incarcerating offenders who we are not scared of but just mad at, merely afforded us the feeling of being tough on crime. It was an illusion because that feeling failed to translate into actual public safety benefits.
Rather than spend billions on building prisons, Texas invested $241 million into alternative sentencing, greater access to parole, and evidence-based programming aimed at improving the success rate for those reentering society or on supervision. Texas conservatives now measure success by the reduction in crime and recidivism, rather than just how big of a hammer was wield.
The result has been a resounding success for Texas, both in terms of fiscal savings and public safety. Since 2007, Texas has seen a 20% reduction in the incarceration rate, the closure of 10 prison facilities, the savings of $2 billion in projected new prison builds, for approximately $4 billion in total savings. Most importantly, the Texas investment into probation and parole programming yielded a 46% reduction in parole revocations, a 25% reduction in recidivism, and a 31% decline in the crime rate. The Texas crime rate is now its lowest since the 1960s.
Texas is proof that conservative criminal justice reform is tough on crime. Conservatives in Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Indiana, Utah, and even the federal government have since followed Texas’ lead.
The Trump administration applied the lessons learned in Texas with the passage of the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice bill set to recalibrate how the federal government measures its toughness to focus on the direct impact to public safety.
While there exists room for some bipartisan agreement around criminal justice reform, critical distinctions must be drawn. As conservatives, we must never lose sight of the ultimate goal of any criminal justice system: the promotion of justice, the rule of law, and public safety. Just as we cannot compromise these goals to indulge our need to feel tough, we must never abide a sentiment that vilifies these goals. Both views are shortsighted, and as such, are a danger to public safety.
The people of Tennessee elected my friend, Bill, governor on the promise that he would lead the nation in conservative criminal justice reform. Gov. Lee is championing conservative reforms like those in Texas, proven effective in reducing crime. This comes at a critical time since Tennessee has one of the highest crime rates in the region coupled with one of the highest incarceration rates in the Nation. Despite being subject to the tired “soft on crime” and “hug a thug” tropes, while being simultaneously subject to critics on the left challenging his commitment to their version of reform, Gov. Lee is not leading by feelings. Soon, Tennessee may even give Texas a run for its money.
More than ever, this nation needs conservative leaders willing to be an example of how to govern with bold commitment to principles that serve the interest of our fellow citizens. This certainly includes the system designed to keep them safe.