When crime rates began rising in the 1960s and too many Americans felt unsafe walking in their neighborhoods, the idea of putting more people in prison — and keeping them there longer — made sense.
For the next three decades, our nation did just that, as public unease propelled lawmakers to promote longer sentences, curbs on parole and other measures making our correctional system ever tougher.
Now more than 2 million American adults are behind bars and nearly one of every 33 is under some form of correctional control — either incarcerated or supervised in the community. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the rate was one in 77.
As conservatives with backgrounds in law enforcement, we embraced the orthodoxy that more incarceration invariably meant less crime, no matter the offense or the danger posed by its perpetrator. But crime rates have been falling since the early 1990s, and a growing body of research combined with the compelling results of reforms in many states prove it is time to adjust our approach.
In short, we must reserve our harshest and most expensive sanction — prison — for violent and career criminals while strengthening cost-effective alternatives for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. The latter lawbreakers must be held accountable for their crimes, but they pose less risk and hold greater potential for redemption.
With today’s sophisticated assessment tools, we can better sort offenders and match them with the levels of treatment and community supervision that offer the best chance for them to stay crime free. Specialty courts that use swift and certain sanctions to promote compliance with drug tests and other conditions of probation are another key plank in this approach.
Let us be clear: Society’s treatment of dangerous, violent felons should remain as punitive as ever. Communities need protection from such predatory criminals, and incapacitation — for a long time, no matter the cost — remains the proper response. Widespread incarceration has played a role in making our streets safer. Estimates vary, but many social scientists believe that expanding imprisonment can be credited for up to a third of the crime reduction of recent years, with demographics, advances in policing and a hotly debated mix of other dynamics accounting for the rest.
However, when it comes to the public safety benefits of incarceration, at least for some offenders, it is clear that we are well past the point of diminishing returns. And given that recidivism levels remained disappointingly high as incarceration rates rose, we would be foolish to ignore the need for a course correction.
The Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported that states that have cut their imprisonment rates (coupled with other reforms) have experienced a greater crime drop than those that increased incarceration. Between 2007 and 2012, the 10 states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates had a 12 percent average reduction in crime, while the 10 states with the largest imprisonment rate increases saw crime fall 10 percent.
Kentucky has shown that states can cut recidivism and costs while protecting public safety by shaving time off an inmate’s prison term but requiring a period of community monitoring upon release. Offenders completing the state’s new Mandatory Reentry Supervision program were 30 percent less likely to return to prison for a new crime than inmates released before the program took effect.
Kentucky’s prison growth outpaced nearly all others’ between 1999 and 2009, but it has saved more than $29 million since the program began in 2011.
When you see, as we have, what reduces criminal behavior, it’s easier to accept the notion that for many offenders, prison is not the best answer. That conclusion is part of what led us to join Right on Crime, a national movement of conservatives who support a criminal justice system reflecting fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, the empowerment of victims and reliance on solid evidence to determine the most cost-effective use of taxpayer funds to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.
Much of the talk about such reforms highlights their fiscal payoff, and we’re all for saving taxpayer dollars. But as conservatives, we also applaud such efforts because they reflect an evidence-driven approach that values results, not imprisonment for imprisonment’s sake.
Let’s resist our old incarceration reflex and support a rational system anchored in the knowledge, experience and values of today. Let’s preserve families, restore victims, help willing offenders turn their lives around and keep the public safe.
Ken Cuccinelli was attorney general of Virginia from 2010 to this year and is president of the Senate Conservatives Fund. Deborah Daniels was assistant U.S. attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs from 2001 to 2005.