The news media are enthralled with the drama of the wrestling match at the brink of the “fiscal cliff.” However, the taxpayers should keep their eyes on the equally gripping story of the budget shortfalls facing virtually every state. Our governors and state legislators are grappling with insolvent pension systems, ballooning Medicaid expenditures, skyrocketing prison costs and falling tax revenues.
Still, there is good news. Rather than being paralyzed by partisan gridlock, state leaders have found bipartisan agreement on an important issue: criminal justice reform.
This is a recent development. For years, battles over prison reforms have bitterly divided liberals and conservatives. During the past few years, however, conservatives have taken a second look at the skyrocketing costs of our prisons, which have been rising faster than any portion of state budgets except Medicaid, and they have concluded that we aren’t getting all of the public safety that we are paying for. A recent Washington Monthly article summed up this skepticism succinctly: “Right-wing operatives have decided that prisons are a lot like schools: hugely expensive, inefficient, and in need of root-and-branch reform.”
Conservative governors and legislators are now demanding the same fiscal accountability from prisons that they expect from other departments. The results have been outstanding. In recent years, several states have made remarkable progress in cutting prison costs, saving literally billions without compromising public safety. These conservative state leaders are working side by side with liberals to hold offenders accountable, cut crime and contain costs. This is a striking change from previous years when conservatives usually gave corrections departments a blank check.
Conservatives also have concluded that we are locking up a lot of people who don’t pose a danger to society. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with people we’re just mad at. There are better ways than prison to hold low-risk offenders accountable, programs that are more effective — and a lot cheaper.
The conservative reform movement got its start in Texas in 2007 when state leaders decided to scrap plans to build three more prisons and instead invest some of the money saved into treatment for offenders with mental health issues or drug addiction. Overall, the state has avoided nearly $2 billion in prison costs, and the crime rate is at the lowest level since 1973.
Last year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich led a reform effort that reserves costly prison beds for violent and repeat offenders while beefing up community supervision of nonviolent offenders, holding them accountable and putting them on track to becoming law-abiding, productive citizens. The state will save $50 million over the next three years, helping close the state’s budget shortfall.
Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia signed legislation that will reduce the number of low-level drug possession offenders in prison and will expand the use of drug courts that emphasize accountability for the drug users. This conservative, cost-effective approach has enjoyed remarkable success in reducing drug use by participants, at far less cost than imprisonment. This legislation united left and right, passing the legislature unanimously.
In October, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed bipartisan legislation that directs more low-level, nonviolent offenders into community supervision, which requires frequent drug testing and swift sanctions to keep participants on the straight and narrow. The state will save $250 million in corrections costs over the next five years.
These victories for reform are the result of a growing movement among conservatives to offer alternatives to our current criminal justice policies. Both of us are part of the Right on Crime initiative which has united many prominent conservatives, including Jeb Bush, Ed Meese, Grover Norquist and William Bennett, to advocate sensible reforms that have proven effective at keeping communities safe while saving taxpayer dollars.
Right on Crime supports effective programs that are less costly alternatives to prison such as drug courts, rehabilitation and programs that impose swift and certain sanctions.
These conservative policy initiatives have attracted the support of leaders from across the political spectrum. The victories for criminal justice reform may not get as much publicity as the stories of gridlock emanating from Washington. Nevertheless, they are proof that even in times of great partisan tension, leaders on the left and the right can set aside their differences and make good public policy based on conservative principles. The result is safer communities and fewer victims.
Newt Gingrich was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999 and is founder of American Solutions. Pat Nolan was Republican leader of the California State Assembly from 1984 to 1988 and is president of Justice Fellowship.