Friday, January 7, 2011

Newt Gingrich to Conservatives: Downsize Prisons

Today, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a stalwart conservative, joined with long-time prison reformer Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship and gave conservatives this no-nonsense message:

There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential. We spent $68 billion in 2010 on corrections - 300 percent more than 25 years ago. The prison population is growing 13 times faster than the general population. These facts should trouble every American.
Our prisons might be worth the current cost if the recidivism rate were not so high, but,according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, half of the prisoners released this year are expected to be back in prison within three years. If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.
We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.
Hear, hear!  The op-ed makes many convincing arguments that downsizing prisons (and curbing our addiction to them) won't lead to a spike in crime and will save cash-strapped states lots and lots of money.  Read the whole thing, and check out Right on Crime's website for conservative ideas on criminal sentencing reform.

Of course, the major contributor to prison population growth in the last 25 years has been the widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences -- especially for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders.  The math is simple:  require long prison sentences for lots of offenders, and you run out of prison space -- and run up prison costs -- fast.  In Florida, for example, just a handful of illegally obtained prescription drugs earns even first-time offenders a trip to prison for 25 years.  One such sentence for one offender costs Floridians half a million dollars (see the case of Scott Earle as an example).  Now multiply that by hundreds or thousands of offenders, and you see where Florida's overstuffed prisons and colossal corrections budget came from.  And we know from yesterday's post that America's favorite drugs to abuse are prescription drugs, which begs the question: is a long mandatory prison sentence really the best way to handle such a common public health problem?

Getting rid of mandatory minimums, giving judges discretion, and creating smarter alternatives to prison must be part of any plan -- conservative or otherwise -- to kick America's incarceration addiction.