By Steven Greenhut
Presidential-election observers could understandably come away with the impression that the emerging horse race is little more than a freak show, especially given that loudmouthed billionaire Donald Trump leads some polls on the GOP side, and avowed socialist Bernie Sanders is generating the most excitement in Democratic quarters.
But a number of candidates are raising a surprisingly serious issue – and they are doing so in a way that defies the cheap attempts at populism epitomized by the Trump campaign. It’s the wonkish issue of criminal-justice reform. Over the years, politicians of both parties have typically taken the “lock them up” approach to crime as they have feared losing the support of police organizations and unions. Few people question the cost or the human toll.
That appears to be changing. Earlier in the week, President Barack Obama visited a prison and commuted the sentences of 46 people serving drug-related terms. Instead of blasting the president as one would have expected, some of the GOP presidential contenders have embraced similar efforts to address sentencing reform. This is progress.
Some media reports depicted this as a transparent ploy by Republicans to reach out to African-American voters. An article in The Hill quoted GOP strategist Ford O’Connell: “America’s demographics are changing at lighting speed, so Republicans are going to have to court minority voters, period. This is a smart way to do it. … (A)t least there’s a realization that we can’t win the White House relying solely on white voters.”
Yes, but there’s far more to this approach than electoral positioning. Some Republicans have for some time been pushing this issue, thanks in part to a Texas-based criminal-justice reform effort known as Right on Crime. The organization calls for sentencing reform based on conservative fiscal principles and religious values. It’s no out-of-the-GOP-mainstream group. It boasts support from some of the biggest names in conservatism, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. attorney general Ed Meese and nationally known conservative activist Grover Norquist.
The Hill article noted that candidates Perry, Rand Paul and Chris Christie have all championed at least some of these principles. Others surely will follow.
“As with any government program, the criminal justice system must be transparent and include performance measures that hold it accountable for its results in protecting the public, lowering crime rates, reducing re-offending, collecting victim restitution and conserving taxpayers’ money,” according to Right on Crime. In other words, these conservative reformers are starting to apply their principles to an area of government where conservatives often have been AWOL.
The movement’s Texas roots go beyond Right on Crime being a project of the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. Its model is Texas’ prison policies. It’s ironic. Here in California, the Democratic-controlled Legislature likes to make Texas a punching bag, portraying it as a caricature of right-wing America.
But conservative Texas has shut down three prisons in recent years and has three more slated for closure. The state has been reducing sentences, reforming the system and saving money – and crime keeps going down. In a 2004 article headlined “Tough Texas gets results by going softer on crime,” the Washington Post reported that in the early 2000s “Texas couldn’t build prisons fast enough to accommodate the growing number of inmates.” Prison costs were soaring.
State officials didn’t want to spend the money needed to build the new beds, realizing that it would conflict their approach of keeping taxes low and budgets in line. They realized the only way to keep costs down was to reduce the number of prisoners. “And instead of building new prisons … (they) built a treatment system,” according to the Post. “To counter the huge number of former inmates who returned to jail after violating parole, they created hundreds of new beds in drug treatment programs ….”
It’s been a remarkable success. By contrast, liberal California spends the most in the nation to house an inmate (more than $60,000 annually) and has such an overcrowded prison system that a federal judge ordered the state to reduce prison crowding to a mere 135 percent of capacity. To comply with the order, the state has been sending prisoners to county jails under a process known as realignment, and voters have been approving measures reforming sentences and drug laws. But California is stuck in the same spot where Texas was more than a decade ago: searching for capacity and money to fund a costly system. California also has the highest recidivism rates in the nation.
Crime keeps falling in the United States and the latest evidence suggests few links between incarceration rates and crime drops. So people are less fearful, politicians are less apt to play off of crime fears – and there’s little money available to spend on what the lefties like to call the prison-industrial complex. The timing is right. In fact, Texas’ experiment with prison reform grew out of a budget problem. So they came up with more creative (and humane) solutions.
In a recent article in the Georgetown Law Review, federal judge Alex Kozinski, penned a shocking expose of the state of the American legal system. He called for broad criminal-justice reforms and noted that America has the world’s highest incarceration rates – far higher even than authoritarian China. He blames the drug war, mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. A Reagan appointee to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, Kozinski is one of the most prominent judges in the country.
So the pendulum is swinging back, finally. In 1998 during the California gubernatorial debate between state attorney general Dan Lungren, a Republican, and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. Davis wasn’t about to let the notoriously ham-fisted Lungren (a champion of expanded civil asset forfeiture laws) outflank him to the right on the crime issue, so Davis said that Singapore, which executes drug dealers, was a good starting point, and argued that he would allow 13 year olds to be executed in the state. This kind of posturing wasn’t unique to California.
Fortunately, those days of ratcheting up crime rhetoric are over. Instead of fighting over who is tougher on crime, candidates are arguing over who has the most sensible, humane and cost-effective crime policies. This is real progress – and something to remember when you get depressed about some of the headline-grabbing silliness from the likes of Trump or Sanders.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is based in Sacramento.