Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Opinion

Column:

Most people want to live in a safe, secure neighborhood. They want their politicians to be tough when it comes to fighting crime.

Floridians increasingly want their criminal justice system to be smart and rehabilitate criminals, rather than just spending money to punish them. In a recent poll commissioned by Right on Crime, a majority of voters said they believe the criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation policies.

Yet, currently Florida sees one-in-four released inmates return to prison within three years of release. The prison population hovers around 100,000, the system is understaffed, and it’s all expensive: costing over $2 billion annually.

These are clear signs the system is not delivering what Floridians want.

The good news? Being tough on crime and smart on criminal justice go hand-in-hand, presenting a big opportunity for politicians running for office to put reform on the agenda.

In recent years, right-of-center leaders in red states across the country have pursued criminal justice reforms, and their efforts have yielded lower crime, reduced recidivism, reduced prison populations, and big savings for taxpayers.

Redefining "tough on crime" required nothing new or groundbreaking. Instead, it meant simply applying longstanding conservative principles — fiscal discipline and bureaucratic accountability, chief among them — to the criminal justice system.

Many conservatives began asking if there was a better way to hold offenders accountable, prepare inmates for re-entry into society, and stop the vicious cycle of drug abuse, crime, and disorder that threatens the rule of law. They asked whether taxpayers were getting the best bang for their buck. After consulting the available evidence, they realized the answer was a resounding "no," and then they got to work.

The first state to lead by example was Texas.

In late 2006, Texas lawmakers were warned that by 2012, the state prison system would need nearly 18,000 new beds at a cost of nearly $2 billion. To avoid this, state legislators adopted a new strategy. They used data to look at the drivers of their prison population.

Instead of spending money for more prisons, they pursued programs to divert low-level offenders from prison, offered drug and alcohol treatment in prison, expanded mental health treatment options, and supported specialty courts like Veterans Court and Drug Court, among other reforms.

Notably, Texas has raised its "felony theft threshold" to $2,500, among the highest in the nation, and Texas has never adopted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.

The results have been astonishing. Not only did Texas avoid having to build new prisons, Texas has actually closed eight adult facilities, and another eight juvenile facilities. Arrest rates are down, parole revocations are down, and fewer people are on felony probation. Most importantly, the Texas crime rate is currently lower than at any point since 1967.

Red states like Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have also led in pursuing reform.

Florida has not. The state has expanded its criminal code, turning misdemeanors into felonies, and felonies into more severe felonies, added sentencing enhancements to those felonies, and mandatory minimums on top of the sentencing enhancements.

This has added to the billions in costs and kept Florida’s prison population and crime rates above the national average.

Now is the time for Florida to adopt a smarter approach, while remaining tough on crime. State leaders can deliver the system voters desire by following the model of evidence-based reform.

A smart approach to reform would reduce recidivism to prevent crime, not just punish offenders after the fact.

It would prepare inmates — the overwhelming majority of whom will be released — for re-entry into society so they stay on the straight and narrow.

It would prioritize prison space for violent and repeat criminals, not mandate that first-time drug offenders stay behind bars for decades at a time.

And it would give law enforcement the resources to catch dangerous criminals, not waste hundreds of millions of dollars on unnecessary incarceration of low-risk offenders.

Voters should keep this in mind at the ballot box. A better justice system means lower spending, better results, and most importantly safer communities. We now have the data to pursue policies that allow for law enforcement to effectively target dangerous criminals, while providing opportunities for non-violent offenders to become taxpayers, not tax burdens. That is being tough, and smart.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform, a politically conservative U.S. taxpayer advocacy group.

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