By David Safavian, Deputy Director, ACUF Center for Criminal Justice Reform
According to the mainstream media, the fight for criminal justice reform is over once Donald Trump is inaugurated.
A few Republicans are even gleeful at the prospect of a dead criminal justice reform movement, arguing that it is nothing more than a continuation of the Obama agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatives groups are actively working on these important issues, and our efforts are paying off. Just last week, for example, Ohio reined in its civil asset forfeiture law.
Why do so many Conservative and faith-based groups support criminal justice reform? After all, the right has historically been law-and-order oriented. But given the importance conservatives place on liberty, accountability, and limited government, we would ask why any Republican – indeed anyone regardless of political persuasion – would oppose improving the criminal justice system. It is in dire need of reform.
Today, America locks up more of its own citizens than any other nation, both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage of the population. While we have 5 percent of the world’s people, we house (and pay for) 25 percent of its prisoners.
Are Americans more crime-prone than those in China, Russia, and Iran?
Is America safer than Canada, Britain, or Japan because we lock up more people for longer terms?
Or is our criminal justice system just out of balance?
The answers to these questions are obvious and troubling. Public safety is the first responsibility of government. But it has become clear that for non-violent offenders, merely sentencing them to long terms is ineffective.
It harms families, does little to help victims, and costs the taxpayers. We should lock up people we are afraid of, but not those whom we are merely mad at.
Unfortunately, the current approach to criminal justice fosters an expanding and expensive prison population. Nearly one third of the Justice Department budget each year goes to the Bureau of Prisons.
When factoring in state spending, the cost of the prison-industrial complex is approximately $80 billion each year. Yet, that number doesn’t include costs to families, communities, or federal and state coffers that are deprived of tax revenues. One recent study found that our national bill for incarcerating two million people each year is actually closer to $1 trillion.
What do taxpayers get for that money?
We get a system that fails to reduce recidivism and does little to advance public safety. We get a system that contributes to greater divorce rates, child poverty rates, and family trauma.
And despite the fact that Americans love the idea of redemption, we often destroy ex-offenders economically, as they become largely unemployable. In short, we have an expensive system that fails to get positive results and harms families along the way.
Equally important, those on the right see an arbitrary and capricious government as the greatest threat to our liberty and freedom. Whether it is the creative use of the criminal code to advance liberal issues du jour, or the targeting of Conservatives by partisan prosecutors, our system is in need of change.
Just ask Rick Perry, Scott Walker, James O’Keefe, the late Ted Stevens, and so many others, who found themselves unjustly targeted by agenda-driven government lawyers. It is no coincidence that George Soros is spending millions of dollars in prosecutor races across the country. With the left largely out of power, prosecutors will be the last bastion of liberal, governmental activism.
Conservatives take issue with a system that permits charges to be filed, even when someone has no specific intent to break the law. Without having to prove some degree of moral culpability (known as ‘mens rea’), it is far too easy for our citizens to find themselves caught up in a criminal proceeding. When they do, they face bureaucrats cloaked in prosecutorial immunity, with virtually unlimited budgets and substantial procedural advantages.
Civil asset forfeiture is yet another example of how the system is out of balance. Government lawyers should not be allowed to seize assets before charges are ever filed. And no innocent American should ever have to sue the government to get his/her property back.
Fundamentally, our efforts are intended to strengthen the rule of law while preserving the dignity of the human person and the family support system. That applies not just to victims and families, but offenders, too. They have to pay a price for their errors, but that should not include physical or sexual abuse or prison rape.
Nor should the burden of incarceration unnecessarily fall on innocent spouses, parents, and children. One underutilized strategy is to increase access by outside groups – many of them faith-based volunteers – to strengthen support structures for those incarcerated and their families. These are resources that, when deployed properly, can reduce recidivism rates and help families stay together.
Being tough on crime sounds good, but it is expensive and ineffective. By being smart on crime, we can improve public safety and cut spending. That is why poll after poll indicates that the voting public supports criminal justice reform. And Republicans are listening.
The governors of such deep red states as Texas, Georgia and South Carolina have enacted legislation that reduces prison populations and cuts spending, all while lowering crime rates and fostering human dignity. And they did it long before President Obama muttered the words “criminal justice reform.”
Donald Trump campaigned, in part, on making America safer. Some believe that to fulfill his campaign promise, the President-elect must oppose criminal justice reform. This, however, is a false narrative.
President Trump will have ample opportunities to implement data-driven and results-oriented solutions; ones that can improve public safety and at the same time, make the system better, fairer, and less expensive. And in doing so, he would be honoring our Founding Fathers, who intentionally limited government power to guarantee life, liberty and the due process of law.
David Safavian is a senior fellow at American Conservative Union Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform.