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The Conservative Case Against More Prisons

Since the 1980s, the United States has built prisons at a furious pace, and America now has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. 716 [1] out of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars. By comparison, in England and Wales, only 149 [2] out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated. In Australia—famously founded as a prison colony—the number is 130 [3]. In Canada, the number is 114 [3].

Prisons, of course, are necessary. In The Scarlet Letter [4], Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil… as the site of a prison.” As long as there are people, there will be conflict and crime, and there will be prisons. Prisons, however, are not a source of pride. An unusually high number of prison cells signals a society with too much crime, too much punishment, or both.

There are other ways to hold offenders—particularly nonviolent ones—accountable. These alternatives when properly implemented can lead to greater public safety and increase the likelihood that victims of crime will receive restitution. The alternatives are also less costly. Prisons are expensive (in some states, the cost of incarcerating an inmate for one year approaches $60,000 [5]), and just as policymakers should scrutinize government expenditures on social programs and demand accountability, they should do the same when it comes to prison spending. None of this means making excuses for criminal behavior; it simply means “thinking outside the cell” when it comes to punishment and accountability.

This argument is increasingly made by prominent conservatives. Bill Bennett, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, and Grover Norquist have all signed the Statement of Principles [6] of Right On Crime, a campaign that advocates a position on criminal justice that is more rooted in limited-government principles. They are joined as signatories by the conservative criminologist John Dilulio and by George Kelling, who helped usher in New York City’s successful data-driven policing efforts under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Some groups, like Prison Fellowship Ministries, approach the issue from a socially conservative perspective. Others, like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network, have fiscal concerns top of mind. Regardless, a sea change is underway in sentencing and corrections policy, and conservatives are leading it.


Between 1992 and 2011, the U.S. prison population increased by nearly 73 [1] percent. To the extent that the recent rise in incarceration incapacitated violent offenders, it was valuable. For nonviolent offenders who are not career criminals, however, incarceration can be counterproductive. As is sometimes said, prisons are graduate schools for crime. This is more than apparent in numerous states where recidivism rates exceed 60 percent.

Unnecessary incarceration of nonviolent, low-level offenders also destroys families. Mitch Pearlstein [7] at Minnesota’s Center of the American Experiment has pointed out that incarcerated men “are less attractive marriage partners, not just because they may be incarcerated, but because rap sheets are not conducive to good-paying, family-supporting jobs.” It is common sense that neighborhoods suffering from high incarceration rates also suffer a plague of single-parent homes and troubled children.

This, in turn, leads to dysfunctional communities that are mistrustful of law enforcement. Most American children are taught that they may always ask the police for help. In some American neighborhoods, however, children are taught never to engage with the police.


For this—high recidivism rates, ravaged families, and maladjusted neighborhoods—Americans pay dearly. In 2011, Americans spent over $63 billion [5] on corrections, a 300 percent increase since 1980. Prisons are the second-fastest growing component of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid.

This might be acceptable if evidence indicated that growing incarceration rates made Americans substantially safer. That is not the case, however. Because more incarceration incapacitates more people, increasing incarceration can indeed lower crime, but it can also reach a point of diminishing returns where spending the next dollar on better law enforcement or probation reduces more crime than spending it on incarceration.

Consider the recent drop in crime rates. Although a general rise in incarceration over the last few decades has partly coincided with a nationwide crime decline, evidence in recent years calls into question the extent of the correlation and whether we have reached or exceeded that point of diminishing returns. From 1998-2007, crime rates fell in 48 states. Incarceration rates increased in 40 of the states, and they decreased in eight. Increased incarceration could not have been responsible for crime falling in the eight states that reduced incarceration. To criminologists, the bottom line is that once incarceration reaches a level necessary to incapacitate dangerous and violent offenders, it is hard to posit a clear correlation between further increases in incarceration rates and reductions in crime.

Most criminologists believe that America’s costly increase in incarceration over the last several decades is responsible for about 25 to 30 percent of the drop in the national crime rate. The rest is attributed to a variety of factors hotly debated among social scientists. These include demographic changes (moves to the suburbs and the aging of the population), improved law enforcement strategies such as COMPStat and “broken windows” policing [8], and even reduced levels of lead [9] in household products.

In short, some of the increase in incarceration was necessary, but the pendulum may have swung too far.


From the 1960s through the early 1990s, crime was perhaps the dominant issue in American domestic politics. Bernie Goetz, an armed citizen who shot four subway muggers in 1984, became a vigilante icon. The 1988 presidential election was arguably over after Michael Dukakis responded haplessly to George Bush’s “Willie Horton ad,” which identified a Massachusetts felon serving life in prison who committed armed robbery and rape on a weekend furlough. In 1990, a story in Time was titled “The Rotting of the Big Apple,” [10] and the cover [11] ruefully depicted the muggings, robberies, and murders for which New York City had become notorious.

Academics like James Q. Wilson and Steven Pinker have suggested that abrupt changes in cultural norms sparked in the 1960s may have caused the increase in crime during this period. Whether cultural liberalism caused the problem is debatable. What is not debatable is that cultural liberalism did everything it could to ignore the problem. Many liberals averred that crime stemmed from social problems like poverty and racism, and for this reason, law-enforcement responses were pointless. Sometimes the liberal attitude was downright silly. Norman Mailer [12] suggested that graffiti—which is nothing more than the vandalism of someone else’s property—was actually academic commentary on architecture.

Conservatives put their foot down and insisted on more incarceration: build new prisons, increase sentence lengths, and enact truth-in-sentencing laws to limit parole. As the argument gained steam, liberals fretted about appearing “soft on crime” in elections, and in due course increasing incarceration became a bipartisan cause. Governor Ann Richards, a Democrat, built a bevy of new prisons across Texas, and Willie Horton’s name was actually floated by Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic primary long before Bush ever raised it.

Predictably, labor unions interested in maximizing the number of jobs for corrections officers also joined in the cause. The most notorious mandatory minimum law in the country, California’s “Three Strikes,” was supported by California’s powerful prison-guard unions. Unsurprisingly, California’s prisons were 180 percent above capacity in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court order mandating that the state release prisoners to alleviate severe overcrowding.

With the tremendous support behind increased incarceration, prison building went too far. The U.S. needed to incarcerate more people, and it did. Now, however, we are incarcerating too many people and seeing diminishing returns. Alternative sanctions for many nonviolent offenders would be less costly, less destructive to families and individuals, and most importantly more effective at ensuring public safety.


 Serendipitously, developments in research and technology have produced new strategies such as electronic monitoring, problem-solving courts, and actuarial risk and needs assessments that can better match offenders with the right level and type of community supervision.

One promising practice is the Hawaii HOPE Court which uses swift, sure, and commensurate sanctions to promote compliance with drug tests and the terms of probation. In the HOPE Court, the judge informs a drug offender that he will be assigned a color and that he must call the court daily to see whether the color has been randomly selected. If so, the offender must report to the court and pass a drug test. Should he fail the test, he spends a short, but immediate, stint in jail—often just a weekend.

HOPE has led to a two-thirds decline in substance abuse and probation failures in Hawaii. It works because swift and certain sanctions are more effective than severe sanctions that come only after multiple probation violations have been ignored. Cesare Beccaria, an 18th-century criminologist made this argument in a 1764 treatise. But an academic treatise is hardly necessary to understand why HOPE works. A parent appreciates the importance of swift and certain sanctions just as well as a professor. HOPE began in Hawaii, but HOPE-style courts are sprouting across the country, and HOPE has become a cause célèbre among conservative reformers.

Texas, in many regards, is the model for how conservatives have led a transformation in corrections. In 2007, Austin number-crunchers projected that over 17,000 new prison beds, at a cost of $2 billion to taxpayers, would need to be built in Texas by 2012. Legislators refused to spend the money and instead allocated a smaller amount to expand community-based options such as probation, problem-solving courts, and evidence-based drug treatment. Since Texas shifted to these alternatives in 2007, crime has dropped by 25 percent and the 17,000 prison beds are no longer needed. In 2011, Texas actually closed a prison. As it enters the 2013 legislative session, Texas correctional facilities are an additional 4,500 beds below capacity, and legislators are talking about closing two additional facilities.

The leader of this revolution in the Republican-controlled Texas House of Representatives was Jerry Madden, a businessman from north of Dallas who says that prisons ought to be prioritized for the people “we’re afraid of, [not] the ones we’re mad at.” Governor Rick Perry signed these reform-oriented budgets and legislation into law. Perry says that he “believe[s] we can take an approach to crime that is both tough and smart…focus[ing] more resources on rehabilitating [nonviolent] offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

Texas is just the beginning. In 2012, Georgia, under Republican Governor Nathan Deal, passed the nation’s most sweeping corrections reform bill. Deal has shown a particular interest in rehabilitating drug offenders, and he has framed his arguments in recognizably conservative language on taxes: “If we fail to treat the addict’s drug addiction, we haven’t taken the first step in breaking the cycle of crime—a cycle that destroys lives and wastes taxpayer resources.”

In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal has promised that his state will “hammer away at the dubious distinction of [having] the highest incarceration rate in the world.” In February, he presented legislators with a proposal that strengthens the incentives for drug offenders to complete rehabilitation programs.

Other states that have enacted major reforms led by Republican governors include Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota.

Some states have taken a performance-oriented approach that creates a fiscal incentive to achieve better outcomes for public safety, victims, and taxpayers. Arizona instituted a policy in 2008 that allowed a portion of state savings from reduced incarceration to be redirected to counties—if the counties pursued policies that diverted offenders from prison, reduced recidivism among those on probation, and ensured that offenders paid restitution to victims. This incentive-funding plan enabled local jurisdictions to implement proven practices for better supervising those on probation, including addressing substance abuse and mental illness. (Around 350,000 inmates in American prisons and jails are mentally ill.) In the first three years after this incentive approach was instituted, the rate at which Arizona’s probationers were revoked to prison fell 38 percent and the number of new felony convictions among its felony probationers dropped 41 percent.

Similar incentive-funding approaches in juvenile justice have been successful in reducing crime and overall costs in Ohio and Texas. For conservatives who have long emphasized that incentives affect the behavior of individuals and systems, the success of these policies is unsurprising.

Perhaps the key indicator of conservative enthusiasm for criminal-justice reform is the robust language in the 2012 Republican platform:  “Government at all levels should work with faith-based institutions that have proven track records in diverting young and first time, non-violent offenders from criminal careers, for which we salute them. Their emphasis on restorative justice, to make the victim whole and put the offender on the right path, can give law enforcement the flexibility it needs in dealing with different levels of criminal behavior. We endorse State and local initiatives that are trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation.”


After the 2012 election debacle, the consensus among conservatives for moving forward seems quixotic: develop new policy prescriptions but without compromising foundational principles. Criminal justice reform, however, is perfectly suited for the mission. The model for conservative criminal justice—less spending, better results, accountability, and greater reliance on faith, family, and community rather than central government—is really the model conservatives should be applying to all issues.

Vikrant P. Reddy and Marc A. Levin are senior policy advisers to the Right on Crime campaign in Austin, Texas.

41 Comments (Open | Close)

41 Comments To "The Conservative Case Against More Prisons"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On March 6, 2013 @ 8:19 am

First of all,if you would free all of the non-violent drug offenders the American prison population would probably be reduced by half. 2nd,by decriminalizing marijuana and certain narcotic drugs and its distribution,in effect legalization, as was done with alcohol back in the 1930s, America could not only cut down on violent crime and control drug abuse, which is a social problem and not a criminal problem,but at the same time raise large amounts of tax revenue by taxing drugs as we do alcohol and tobacco. And finally,in America today,there are just too many laws. By increasing the size and scope of laws in America the government has created what is popularly known as the “Law Enforcement Growth Industry.” The more laws,many of them intrusive and frivolous,the more police,courts,judges and prisons thus creating a taxpayer funded industry. Back in Stalin’s day the man in charge of his secret police,Beria,once said “in the Soviet Union we have so many laws that if you find me the man I will find a law to hang that same man.” Unfortunately, America may be morphing into the old Soviet Union.

#2 Comment By JCF On March 6, 2013 @ 9:09 am

I am confused, some how talking about incarceration rates is shifting to alternatives methods of housing/punishment as a priority as opposed to discussing the causes for so many citizens being in the court room to begin with. Wow, this sounds like a far left proposal that attempts to shift focus from the root cause for a softer gentler adopt a convict platform. Gosh I hope this was a test balloon article and not actually a credible position from any conservative platform.

#3 Comment By WorkingClass On March 6, 2013 @ 9:24 am

The drug war and the gulag are inseparable. End one and you end the other. The CIA, Wall Street and private prisons profit the most from the war on drugs but a host of smaller parasites including police and politicians also have an interest.

The number of voters wanting to legalize marijuana has reached a plurality and is rising rapidly. Obama is a sitting duck on this issue. Republicans (if not Conservatives) should take the side of decriminalization. It would win them votes and soften their image.

But money trumps votes. As long as both parties continue America’s longest war they can continue to reap the profits and the voters be damned.

#4 Comment By The Wet One On March 6, 2013 @ 9:38 am

Oh c’mon!

Of course you need more prisons. How the heck else are you going to disenfranchise more black people who you know won’t vote Republican and whom you won’t bother trying to appeal to as Republicans? Prisons are the most efficient way (with some cost that goes to Republican supporters) of getting rid of these persnickity black voters who won’t vote Republican because Republicans can’t be bothered to even try to get their votes.

The foregoing may sound like B.S., but I’m sure there’s a grain or two (or a thousand) of truth to it. I’ve always found it odd how the vote get manipulated that way. Everyone is entiled to vote in America except those who aren’t. Gotta deepen up that pool of people. Especially since it’s “those people” who go to prison.

#5 Comment By Adam On March 6, 2013 @ 9:59 am

“For conservatives who have long emphasized that incentives affect the behavior of individuals and systems, the success of these policies is unsurprising”.

This applies to other areas as well, such as the tax code. Savvy individuals and especially major corporations view the tax code as an incentive plan to minimize their payment, which they should, but often in ways detrimental to the original intent. Conservatives should definitely apply the logic exampled in this piece to other areas in order to actually come up with workable solutions rather than rhetoric and bumper sticker sound bites.

#6 Comment By Paul Emmons On March 6, 2013 @ 11:15 am

Libertarian Jerry writes:

>By increasing the size and scope of laws in America the government has created what is popularly known as the “Law Enforcement Growth Industry.”… Beria once said “in the Soviet Union we have so many laws that if you find me the man I will find a law to hang that same man.”

Amen! This is the primary reason why I became a registered and active Libertarian over twenty years ago. As has been lamented elsewhere here recently, the Republicrats are tweedledum and tweedledee in this area, doing nothing to stem the tide.

But unfortunately, it also had to do with why I became a more reluctant and dissident Libertarian. Neither you nor Messrs. Reddy and Levin mentioned the role of privatized prisons in promoting this noxious growth. When I heard a local candidate from my own party advocate outsourcing prison ownership and administration, I objected on the grounds that this would create private corporations whose, interest, unlike most, lies in an increase in the crime rate. His reply that this objection made no sense was severely disillusioning.

It makes perfect sense in theory, according the same terms that every libertarian will explain that free enterprise in general makes sense: every enterpreneur wants his business to grow. This need not mean that such a company will openly go out and encoourage people to break more windows. There are plenty of other ways to generate patronage for oneself: Lobby for more criminal laws. Agitate for higher penalties. Oppose alternatives to incarceration. Offer to warehouse convicts from other jurisdictions.

When the question is whether to keep a citizen locked up, a democracy has a responsibility to discuss it in a disinterested manner. To allow the debate to be contaminated by entire corporations whose motive is financial gain is scandalous. Imprisonment should remain a last resort that no one really wants to do.

And experience in my own State of Pennsylvania has proven that the theory translates to practice so naturally, that an enterpreneur not patient enough with the relatively legitimate means of persuasion listed above may stoop to illegitimate means. I refer of course to the “Kids for Cash” scam in Luzerne County. Why is anyone surprised? Put someone in a position to love keeping his fellow human beings under lock and key and these abuses will follow like night after day.

I would like to hear your reassurance as a self-proclaimed libertarian that you reject such developments. If so, hail fellow well met. If not, back to the drawing board…

expense is Shouldn’t a democracy discuss such a vital matter as whether to keep It is scandalously corrosive to democracy when discussion over such a vital matter as whether to keep a citizen locked up is contaminated by special interests wanting to make a buck out of the policy.

#7 Comment By Paul Emmons On March 6, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

How about better educating the public as to what American juries do: decide on the law as well as the facts? This understanding of their function, inherited from British jurisprudence, was implicit in the Founding Fathers’ definition of the word when they guaranteed trial by jury. In rendering a guilty verdict, a jury agrees not only that the defendant did what the prosecutor claims, but that this conduct should be a crime. If they don’t unanimously agree in both respects, then they have the power and the duty to render a verdict of not guilty.

Judges used to instruct juries in this way regularly, until an unfortunate Supreme Court decision ruled that such instruction was unnecessary on grounds that it was already well enough understood. (Yeah, sure.) Since then, there has been a veritable conspiracy to keep prospective jurors ignorant. Members of the Fully Informed Jury Association attempting to spread enlightenment risk being held for trespass and anything else that can be trumped up (cf. the Beria quote). Ignorance among the citizenry has become so general that prosecutors and judges can easily screen out the occasional non-ignorant candidate during voir dire with no risk of diluting the pool significantly or exhausting their peremptory challenges. It is a pathetic state of affairs.

We get the government we deserve.

#8 Comment By EvilleMike On March 6, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

Interesting that neither “private” nor “profit” pops up even once in the whole article.

This of course makes it easier to slant the piece in the direction of “anti-big-government” and away from criticism of “free market capitalism”.

But then we get to a really intriguing part where we’re not so much making a plea for humanity, or for clear-eyed fiscal pragmatism or even for individual rights. It turns out that what we’re angling for here isn’t to stop spending all that money – we’re really just saying we want to redirect all that money into the coffers of our buddies in the Jesus Industrial Complex.

Nice try, guys. Hip to your tricks.

#9 Comment By Neil On March 6, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

I just read the Jersey Journal. A man in a 92 Lexus in Bayonne crashed his car into a parked car, He reeked of PCP and had pot in his possession. He was issued a summons for intoxication and released

In Texas he would be put in the Dallas County jail with a 30,000 bond and probably faced 2-10 years in the state prison.

The county gets 400 per night from the feds. The price of a good Hilton without the benefits. Of course the Texas Prison system has had enough of the local judicial nonsense. They give prisoners 4 days credit for each day in the county jail. the county still makes their money but the state doesn’t bear the cost of incarceration by the time the prisoner is sentenced in 6 months he is given at least 2 years credit and usually released on parole

A New Jersey sheriff was arrested for inflating his DUI arrests. It seems his office gets cash from the feds for each DUI arrest.

Finally it should be noted Bayonne NJ is a Catholic community and Dallas TX is a Calvinist community.
People who are taught mercy are merciful, people who are taught justice are vindictive

#10 Comment By H. Zigy On March 6, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

I know this isn’t politically possible, but how about physical punishments? you know , flagging, canning? Simple, efficient, effective in many ways (including treating psychological issues), and also more humane , because nothing is more inhumane than wasting life.

#11 Comment By ElitecommInc. On March 6, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

While, this was an insightful article, and I enjoyed reading it. I along with several others was curious why there was no reference to the privatization of the prison system and how that aspect will play into the overall policy formation of te prison system.

#12 Comment By Paul Emmons On March 6, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

>I know this isn’t politically possible, but how about physical punishments? you know , flagging, canning? Simple, efficient, effective in many ways (including treating psychological issues), and also more humane , because nothing is more inhumane than wasting life.

I rather agree, but is it effective? Children routinely spanked can still be chronic offenders. When an American teenager visiting Singapore was caught defacing public property and sentenced to a caning, the outcry back home was quite absurd, though. What antediluvian cruelty! Oh, the little punk’s poor spoiled butt. How much more enlightened we are in America, bribing judges to put them away for a year for such an offense.

I’d suggest giving them a choice: if they’re brave enough, get it all over with on one very bad day; if they’re not, they can moulder in a cell for a month or two. I think I’d prefer the caning, myself, but don’t speak from experience.

#13 Comment By MichaelM On March 6, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

No matter what “smaller-government” or “lower-cost” solutions may be proposed, no matter how positive the individual outcomes of any of these solutions may be, no matter how beneficial those solutions may be overall to society…

… they all lack the one thing that building more prisons has provided in spades (and is providing at an accelerating pace as we speak):

Prisons are both vast sinks into which the nation can dump its “excess wealth”, and enormous profit centers for their owners and their shareholders.

Prisons serve the upward redistribution of wealth better than almost any other industry… and they do so while maintaining a facade of public service.

#14 Comment By J.J. Gonzalez Gonzalez On March 6, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

So now rehabilitating criminals is a conservative thing? It used to be a pet project of the bleeding-heart liberals.

I remember well the crime rates of the 70s and 80s – it was murder, murder, murder all the time.

Then came the tough-talking demagogues with their furious prison building campaigns. At first, I was against it; it was such a cynical solution, plus it was outrageously expensive.

But then in the 90s, it all worked! The tough-talkers were right. Incarcerating 716 out of every 100,000 of our fellow citizens was just what the rest of us needed to be able to take walk in Central Park again. It was like being in Wales or Canada!

But you’re right — we don’t have money like it was still the 80s anymore. We just can’t sustain high levels of public safety forever. Eventually they’re going to escape when we stop paying the guards!

I wish you/us luck.

#15 Comment By CRUSADER On March 6, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

That we are incarcerating people for using cannabis — a plant that is far less harmful than tobocco, alcohol and fast food is the sign of a very sick and warped system. It is untenable and morally wrong and can only be maintained by corrupt people.

Cannabis was precribed as a medicine — in the US Pharmacopia — from 1850 -1942. It was used for over 100 different ailments. Did it ever occur to all those who preach prohibition that it is almost CERTAIN that if your ancestors lived here in that time, they would have used it. Did you know that when it was made illegal, the American Medical Association did NOT want it made illegal.

Lastly — if I do not have domain over my body, then I am NOT free. What I choose to put into my body should be my bunsiness and my business only.

Legalize cannabis to get rid of the drug cartels – lealize it because it is the right thing to do. We can just no longer afford cannabis prohibition.

#16 Comment By David On March 6, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

Which “faith” is the correct faith upon which to rely?

#17 Comment By robwbright On March 6, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

As far as non-violent drug offenders, Portugal is the model.


#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 6, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

I will have to reread this article, but I am not that excited in being in the same company as those mentioned. Most of them are quasi-conservatives with another agenda. They are that bait and switch crowd this for making illegal immigrants legal . . . no doubt they want to make those illegal immigrants in prison citizens as well.

#19 Comment By MichaelM On March 6, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

The USA could spend less than 15% of what it does now to manage a prison population about 20-25% of today’s numbers. That’s not just an overall saving: it’s also a saving *per-prisoner*.

The trouble is, reducing the prisoner populationm and the cost-per-prisoner both would take *tens of billions of dollars* out of a prison economy that’s benefited government, industry *and* organized crime for almost a century (as an actual modern industry, I mean: this has been the norm in many small ways for thousands of years).

I’m not just talking about what government spends on prisons and their employees/conractors/ancillaries: I’m including the 500% to 50,000% markup (and the huge life-wagers that prisoners make every day at those prices) on contraband that’s (carefully allowed to be) smuggled into those prisons.

A huge chunka that bill accrues to the prison’s officials (and up the pipeline a *long* way) in cash or kind. THAT economy is what motivates the present system and impels its advocates to lobby for its expansion.

#20 Comment By Irvin Waller On March 7, 2013 @ 9:40 am

Important conservative arguments but would be strengthened with addition of discussion of investing in effective prevention – early childhood, youth outreach and police-social service gang strategies. See my book Less Law, More Order: The Truth about Reducing Crime [14] for ways to shift from over-paying for incarceration to cost effective public safety through violence prevention. A $ for parent training or outreach to youth to complete schools gives same crime reduction as incarceration but for a $ to avoid $7 for incarceration.
UK conservative prime minister talks about the most effective and cost effective way to deal with crime is prevention. All the rest in picking up the pieces.
I talk about the number one right of crime victims is not to be a victim because government invests in what works to prevent violence.

#21 Comment By Matthew Kilburn On March 7, 2013 @ 10:04 am

All you people talk about legalizing drugs….even if just Pot. Sure, you’ve got control over your own body, as do other people, but what do you think the consequences of legalization are going to be? Drug are going to become cheaper – they’d have to if you want to eliminate the black market. Drugs are going to become safer – the product of FDA regulation. Drugs are going to become acceptable – the result of legalizaiton. And Drugs are going to become easier to obtain – you could pick them up at 7/11 instead of needing to meet a drug dealer in a back ally or basement. Just simple logic should tell you that those things will contribute to [perhaps drastically] higher usage rates.

And so how many more people are you willing to sacrifice to drugs to let the current convicts run free? How many more children are you going to allow to burn up their potential by slacking off or skipping school to get high, before we’re stuck supporting them through the welfare system? And how exactly do you treat a non-addictive drug like pot as a “medical problem”?

Drug use creates a debt to society, because you endanger the investment that has been placed in you since the day you were born. Prison isn’t designed to ensure you won’t do drugs, its designed to ensure that if the state is going to be forced to support you, you won’t be living large in the meantime.

People in this country have rights and freedoms and opportunities that most people around the world only dream of. The second an American citizen comes into this world, he or she inherits a share of what is not only the most powerful country on Earth, but also one that provides greater opportunity for advancement than any other. In exchange, we have a few reasonable expectations: You pay your taxes, you register to serve in the military in an emergency, you vote on election day, and you abstain from certain substances that are harmful. Of all of these, the one that arouses the most opposition is also the most reasonable.

You don’t need pot to survive.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 7, 2013 @ 11:39 am

I would add Matthew Kilburn, if I may.

I am just not all that certain that adding another layer of inebriated citizens to the driving and working public is a good idea.

#23 Comment By Josh McGee On March 7, 2013 @ 11:47 am

I really enjoyed this article. I tend to agree that prison cells ought to be for people who are violent, people we fear will do us harm because they have already significantly harmed others; isolation in a prison cell is both a punishment them and a protection for us.

A couple things that become relevant, I think, for prison reform:

1.) the notion of restitution and how it might help reduce repeat criminal activity, especially for non-violent offenders seems important. Restitution, properly enacted, can help produce proper remorse in the perp and help victims perceive a sense of real justice. Community service vaguely hints at this, but often times it is still just used as punishment and not as a means towards restitution.
2.) the role privatizing prisons already does and should play in reform. (As conservative as I am, I am very skeptical about privatizing portions of the prison system. It would be good to hear a genuine pro/con analysis of it from people without a dog in the hunt…)

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 7, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

Paul Emmons, I will say it since you did not: Jury nullification — William Penn.

#25 Comment By june johnson On March 7, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

I do not think more prison are what we need we need prison reform we have put our people in prison for to long like animals in cages what we need is parole for nonviolent federal prisoners or more good time for good behavior and i think it would save taxes for the people

#26 Comment By Gene Elliott On March 8, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

Probation supervisors and parol officers cost a lot less than incarceration, are more humane and are less socially destructive.

#27 Comment By Theodora Beal On March 9, 2013 @ 9:47 am

Unions may get low level guard salaries from prisons but what about the privatization of prisons where owners-stockholders make large profits and get reimbursed by filled cell beds – so their R.O.I. depends on filling the beds. Some out of status immigrants and non-violent offenders linger in prison because the prison owners-stockholders would lose money if the bed is not filled. It’s important to follow the money even if it conflicts with free market values.

#28 Comment By Mo Cassam On March 9, 2013 @ 11:19 am

13 years ago the state’s budget for the University of California system was twicc that of the prison service. Now its the other way round, and the cost per capita is equal; about $60,000/year. But prisons are 100% tax paid, the U of C is 25%.
Above all the U of C is a value adding
institution, once the jewel of the world in creating intellectual capital, while the prisons are the country’s most value destroying institutions, in and out of prison walls, more so than the Pentagon.

Last year of the top 100 on the State of California’s payroll, 44 were in the prison service. While the average U of C academic gets $66,000/y, the average prison guard, mostly drawn form former cops and public employees double dipping, costs $100,000/y, so income is inverse proportion to education.
And the trend continues

#29 Comment By Dennis Tuchler On March 9, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

It strikes me that all non-violent crimes can be considered eligible for non-confinement punishment, except, perhaps, those recidivists who are plainly dangerous to others. Crimninal frauds and violators of security laws can be deprived of their homestead exemption from execution by victims of fraud. Persons charged with criminal trespass without violence to persons may be given light jail sentences (in local jails) and fined. Drug offenders who are convicted for possession and use should be ticketed like traffic offenders. Persons addicted of drugs, whether illegal or prescription drugs, could be imprisoned in reasonably comfortable detoxification facilities until they are clean.

BUT penal law like military bases and weapons procurements have often more to do with the prosperity of a particular locality than with the effective and efficient response to social needs. There are towns that depend almost entirely on prisons for their lives. What do you do for them if prisons are closed?

#30 Comment By SocraticGadfly On March 9, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

Like many another left-liberal, and some libertarians, I note with irony at best, hypocrisy-finding at worst, that this article addresses neither the War on Drugs nor the private prison industry.

Wake me up when traditional conservatives get serious, not one-quarter serious, about this issue.

#31 Comment By Corte33 On March 9, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

No matter what the crime, whether it’s stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family or dealing drugs, a felony conviction will ruin your life forever. For younger people being released, it’s especially hard. With a felony conviction, it’s impossible to get a good job. Employers do background checks. Moreover, you can’t get a clearance. If you had a top secret clearance, it will be revoked. The Government won’t hire you, and that usually means state and local governments too. Do you wonder why recidivism is so high? For a man with a wife and kids, it’s almost impossible to pull your life together. No matter whether you did six months in jail or five years in prison, your life is just about over.
Folks, don’t fret over whether the punishment is just; an ex-convict is penalized forever.

#32 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On March 10, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

Paul Emmons:

Amen to you, brother! Your argument works not just for prisons, but for every industry in which government has “outsourced” its responsibility to private companies. We can debate whether X is an appropriate government function or not, but if we decide it is, then government should do it, and here’s why: If a government function is done by government only, then we can always cut it back or cut it out entirely if we later decide to do so. However, once something is outsourced, we create an industry that will hire lobbyists and buy politicians in order to stay on the gravy train. Now, rather than simply taking an axe to a program, we have a bevy of lobbyists holding our arms to try to keep us from swinging.

Plus, I would really like it if once, just once, someone would point me in the direction of an actual study that shows that outsourcing government functions to the private sector saves money for taxpayers. Private companies have every incentive to run up their prices and run up their hours when they know that the person in control of the budget isn’t using his own money — and, worse, that they have an incentive to use more money because it means a larger budget for them next year. The private-public tie-up is a more noxious form of pork than mere government alone.

#33 Comment By Gizmo On March 10, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

Putting more white collar criminals behind bars would be a good place to start. An inner city kid who robs a convenience store of $50 or sells an ounce of pot gets hard time in the pen, while a banker caught laundering money for drug cartels gets a fat bonus. We have created a situation where respect for the law is diminishing, because the law is not enforced in an equitable manner. We’ve seen an epidemic of crime on Wall St. in recent years, yet there have been almost no prosecutions, with the exception of Bernie Maddow. His mistake was scamming the economic elites.

#34 Comment By UraFecalLiberal On March 11, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

These arguments presented here are old rehash. P. Emmons above offers what I have been saying for years. It’s the Singapore method, from a society that actually works well and a government that can be said to govern efficiently and honestly.

Caning and flogging should be used for lower offenses and concomitantly with mandatory time sentences. Nuisance crimes of drug possession, cruelty to animals, wife beating, should be flogged, and for more recalcitrant cases, a second and third time once initial healing sets in.

For serious crimes, prisons should be run as POW camps on the strict military model. Prisoners respond crisply to orders, march, and stand at attention. Strict discipline. Get rid of sardine can stacking of inmates and create farms in the open prairie, where prisoners work from dawn to dusk, just like an American farmer. They make their own clothes from coarse cloth, and their own shoes from recycled tires. Good food, fresh air, and at the end of the day some recreation. They will be too tired to create mischief. Dormitory bunking with constant surveillance. If an inmate crosses demarked line, he receives stiff punishment. If he attacks another inmate, it is shoot to kill. Rape or attempted rape results in flogging so severe over a prolonged period that the primal screams echo throughout the prison.

Obviously, those prisoners with little time left can be put on road gangs picking up trash, fixing up poor peoples’ homes, and such.

Such prisons obviously can be made to be revenue neutral at the least. Money or credits earned buy extras.

#35 Comment By Rick Johnson On March 11, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

“As I lay there on rotting prison straw, I first realized that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.” So wrote one of the great men of the twentieth century, the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn about his imprisonment in Stalin’s Gulag. Although his experience was not solitary confinement, for the most part he seemed to have withdrawn into himself and thereby relied on his inner resources. “And that is why I turn back to years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.’” The hellish Gulag experience did not harden his heart because a great soul found eternal truths. “…it is in pushing back against the world that a soul is defined.”1

When American Prisoners of War returned from their captivity in North Vietnam, many of them wrote and spoke about their experience of enduring long periods of solitary confinement imposed by their North Vietnamese jailers, in some cases for years. Almost to a man, they reported that the experience had strengthened their patriotism, their resolve, their religious beliefs and character. The late President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat stated that when the British imprisoned him for nationalist activities during World War II, he was slapped into solitary confinement for 18 months. He said that the first 6 months were the worse 6 months of his life, but that the last 6 months were the best six months of his life. His true character was found, tested, rescued, and fortified. So it would appear that when forced by isolation to confront one’s inner being and conscience over an extended period of time, many human beings eventually find their inner self in opposition to their conscious mind. In other words, the soul laid bare without the protective membranous cover of mind originated rationalizations.

When every theory of criminal justice and incarceration has been applied, whether societal protection, punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, etc., all have failed to make angels of criminals. Many criminals perceive the world as a zero-sum system with a fixed sized pie, so life is but a struggle to get your share which can only be taken from others. It is only speculation, but surely a criminal can only change when he allows for a positive-sum world, and confronts his true self and suffers a conscience.

We take individuals who have committed crimes and offenses against ONE society, and place them into ANOTHER society, that of their fellow incarcerated criminals. Imprisonment would make much more sense if the criminals were removed from ALL societal forms. Benign Solitary Confinement (BSC) would serve every theory of criminal justice by imprisoning criminals and separating them from every society, inflicting punishment, establishing deterrence, and might be the only realistic method of true rehabilitation. In fact, paradoxically, most violent sociopaths do crave a society – but of their peers. The threat of being deprived of any social interaction, of being without the accompanying ego support for a period of several years would prove a much stronger deterrent than the post graduate crime school Bed & Breakfast that is the modern Western jail and prison. Most sociopaths would be terrified of the prospect of being alone for long periods. Despite reasonable precautions, if BSC resulted in some prisoners taking their own lives, the broad society’s interests would not necessarily be ill served. Capital punishment could be politically abandoned by being replaced by the perceived psychologically harsher but physically milder more feared policy of induced self-introspection. And mistakes of the criminal justice system resulting in wrongful incarceration of the innocent would not be as irrecoverably damaging as in the current systems – in fact, some could profit from it.

#36 Comment By Bob Kaercher On March 12, 2013 @ 12:00 am

Wow. First a conservative Republican U.S. senator filibusters a nomination for CIA director, and now a conservative web site makes its own argument for prison reform.

Whatever is happening to the American conservative movement? It’s as though it’s becoming more…human.

If this shift turns out to be a lasting one, it will be most welcome, to be sure.

#37 Comment By robertbohall On March 12, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

Reddy and Levin are on target.

Hello, I’m a newbie to the discussion group, oldie in terms of age, and
definitely interested as a retired economist in criminal justice issues be
it past volunteer work, a member of VA CURE and as a senior learning

Let me suggest that there has been no improvement in public safety over the
last eleven years – 2000 to 2011 through additional incarceration of
prisoners in the United States.

A simple look using weighted averages of state crime rates versus
incarceration rates for 2000 and 2011 leads one to conclude there is no
relationship between imprisonment and public safety. There was no return on
increasing rates of incarcerating offenders , at least over the period in
question and at the levels being administered in the United States to its

Thirty-three states increased their rate of imprisonment on average by 53
persons per 100,000 residents between 2000 and 2011 or in excess of 85,000
offenders. At $25,000 each the annual cost for citizens would exceed $2.1 billion.
billion. Crime rates in the 33 states on average per 100,000 residents
declined between 2000 and 2011: Index crime by 19.8%, violent crime by 21.5%
and property crime by 19.6%.

Seventeen states decreased their rate of imprisonment on average by 62
persons per 100,000 residents between 2000 and 2011 or in excess of 93,000
offenders. At $25,000 each the annual savings for citizens would exceed $2.3 billion. Crime rates in the 17 states on average per 100,000 residents
declined between 2000and 2011: Index crime by 20.4%, violent crime by 25.9%
and property crime by 19.6%. Better results overall than those states
increasing rates of incarceration.

In summary overall results for 33 states increasing rates of incarceration
per 100,000 residents from 2000 and 2011 did not do as well in lowering
crime rates per 100,000 residents as did 17 states that decreased
incarceration rates. This is not to say that results may have varied for
some states or that it can be argued that incarcerating offenders should be
eliminated. However between 2000 and 2011 there appears to be little or
even no relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates in the
50states of the United States. Similar questions can be raised regarding
federal incarceration that also includes the Washington, D.C. prisoners.

Other than occasional anecdotal “feel-good-power-to-punish-stories” there
was no relationship between public safety (crime rates) and changes in rates
of imprisonment.

Comments regarding the spreadsheets: To just see results print out page one
of the 17 state table and pages one and two of the 33 state table. The
weighted average line serves as the basis for the summary analysis quoted
above. The data have been carefully checked. Please contact
[15] if there are any questions. The tables are set up as
excel spread sheets and interested researchers can easily adapt them to
other uses. For example make regional tables, etc. If anyone wishes to copy
or quote the spreadsheets and use them this is fine. I’m too old to worry
about credits.

One other observation. Reddy and Levin mention the belief that America’s
costly increase in incarceration over the last decades is responsible for
about 25 to 30 percent of the drop in the national crime rate. I would be
interested in the empirical basis for these quotations. Is it one study in
the past using some modeling assumptions that need an in-depth look. I have
a hard time finding any credence in this argument. It actually may well be
the case that all the extra incarceration on the past 40 to 50 years has had
no impact on national crime rates. Crime rates would not have changed at
all without all the policies eagerly implemented since 1970. A great
research project for the future.

Hopefully this may be of interest. If you want a copy of the spreadsheets shoot me an email. Bob

#38 Comment By cstahnke On March 13, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

Great to see some conservatives actually embrace some rational solutions to social problems. I think there are a host of problems we face collectively that are open to a pragmatic evidence-based approach that all spectrums the population that are waving the equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book and chanting slogans can agree on. Sadly, the conservative brand is deeply tarnished by this brand of right-wing “populism.”

Having said that, the real issue is not finding good solutions to the problem of prisons and criminal justice issues but to somehow drown out the vested interests who profit from increasing prison populations and those politicians who like to wave around simplistic solutions.

#39 Comment By Jotaro Kamimine On March 23, 2013 @ 12:22 am

” In rendering a guilty verdict, a jury agrees not only that the defendant did what the prosecutor claims, but that this conduct should be a crime. If they don’t unanimously agree in both respects, then they have the power and the duty to render a verdict of not guilty.”

That’s jury nullification. It can be done by juries. The problem is that it makes enforcement uneven – it doesn’t remove the underlying bad laws. There is no precedent established if someone is freed on jury nullification. Hence that’s why the ACLU doesn’t want to only rely on that.

But the people should be taught that they CAN use jury nullification as a weapon against injustices.

#40 Comment By Chuck Burns On July 31, 2013 @ 6:21 am

I would like to add that we are creating with the ending of drug war a new group that is a liability to nation (welfare system). So as republicans you wish to continue the welfare state? No end the drug war the entitlement state, people in times of need should rely on their local community who will see them on drugs and won’t help them till they stop, thats better then rehab. And drug use won’t climb, responsible use might and won’t that be a shock! A return to an age where we knew what self control was. It won’t climb because employers could still test for it and they could fire you for being high at work and doing a piss poor job. Combine that with the end of the entitlement state and you sirs are wrong unless you want to continue with the policies of the left that would give the degenerates a undeserved safety net.

#41 Comment By Robert Paul On December 23, 2014 @ 2:15 am

I am much too conservative for you from the first few lines I read. You have not learned in 50 plus years that a welfare state exudes more laziness, depletes a country of its finances, and the criminals just keep being arrested and turned out within 24 hours to go back to their crimes against us ordinary law abiding citizens. I speak from experience from a lot of personal harm to me by Black male thugs over the years. I live in Alexandria, Louisiana, which has the HIGHEST CRIME RATE in the United States and that is straight from a DEA Agent: That is not the Black Mob Rule Propaganda from Sharpless Al Harpy and not from the swill spewed out by President Obama. I have case history reporting the crimes against me here in Alexandria, LA. I am desperately trying to find a way to file a lawsuit against the City Managers and the State of Louisiana for its refusal to keep Criminals incarcerated and continuously turning them loose to prey on honest, law abiding citizens. It is not Racism of any kind when a Black person has done the crime, it is what it is, a Black Criminal doing his thing, being the criminal he is and that IS NOT RACISM: It is however Black Anti-White Racism and Black Hate Crimes toward White people when it is repeated over and over. So, YES I 100% support more prisons and I am for what Angola used to be when I was just a kid, a self supporting prison so there is not a financial drain on the state to support it food wise. Angola Prison grew all of its vegetables and put it away for use, grew its own feed for all of its livestock, cattle, hogs, chicken, etc. so there was no money going out to suppliers to get rich off of prisons. That is how prisons should be–as self reliant as humanly possible. They are not in there for a Sunday picnic. They have harmed Society and the vast majority are not innocents falsely charged though that has proven to be so in some cases, that is not what the vast majority are! I am searching the internet and free legal answer sites to try and find the Counts and Laws to use against the City and State Officials that keep putting the criminals back on the street to prey on us.l That too is precisely what caused the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, MO. That animal had a long history of crimes and violence including an attempted murder in his juvenile records and the vast Oligarch Owned News Media has not once told that side of what went on. Do some research into what we ordinary law abiding citizens think; the ones that have been physically assaulted, beaten and hospitalized by one of these thugs, had property stolen from these outlaw thieves and you will, God willing, come to the “”Rights in Our Constitution”” that give us our “”Rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”” and those people in power “”are responsible for ‘effecting our Safety and Happiness’ through laws”,that the City Officials and liberal do-gooders are awesomely dis-obeying and thus depriving us of those very things our Constitution Guarantees us. Nowhere in our Constitution does it say it is a Constitutional right for Criminals to Run Amuck in Society; it is quite the contrary.