Soft on Crime: The Great Divide Dissolves

Post Date: February 2, 2014

(Tulsa World Opinion, Julie DelCour) — Back in December, key members of Congress received a letter pleading with them to wise up about what types of inmates should be locked up in a federal prison system that’s zoomed out of control in cost and population.

The letter did not come from liberal-leaning civil rights groups. It came from hard-core conservatives, led by no-new-taxes pledge leader Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and from the likes of Ralph Reed, Faith & Freedom Coalition chairman, and Galen Carey, of the National Association of Evangelicals.

What’s interesting is that both conservative and liberal groups are sending nearly the same message to Congress.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 national groups, is urging passage of the bipartisan Justice Safety Valve Act, which “would slow federal prison growth, save taxpayers money and make the federal system more just and reasonable.”

Norquist and Heritage Action for America, are pushing the Smarter Sentencing Act, proposed legislation that “advances more effective and just criminal sentencing without jeopardizing public safety.”

So, who among the aforementioned groups and individuals, from both sides of the political spectrum, is “soft on crime?”

None of the above. Getting smart

That hackneyed phrase, “soft on crime,” has been replaced with “smart on crime” initiatives with broad-based, bipartisan support. Leaders on both sides of the aisle are realizing that prisons should be reserved for the dangerous offender — that a large percentage of nonviolent offenders could be punished in less costly ways than straight incarceration.

Fiscal realities also have blurred ideological lines.

In 2012, the U.S. had the highest prison population in the world, followed by China, Russia, Brazil and India. Of those 1.5 million inmates, 217,000 were federal prisoners.

While prison populations have fallen in most states — Oklahoma being an exception — in recent years, the federal system has grown. Less than 3 percent of inmates are there for murder, robbery or assault; more than half are serving drug sentences. Uncle Sam in 2013 spent $6 billion on prisons; the average annual cost to house an inmate is $29,000, A third of the Department of Justice budget goes toward prisons. Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar less for taxpayers or for grants to state and local police.

Capitol Kumbaya

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee took the first step toward the most significant legislative overhaul in years to the criminal justice system: merger of three bipartisan proposals that would change how federal criminal sentences are enforced.

The Smarter Sentencing Act: The bill would affect the sentences of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences (including many who are already in prison) and save taxpayers billions of dollars.

The bill would give judges flexibility in applying sentences for minor drug charges when defendants don’t pose any risk to public safety.

Cost savings are estimated at $3.3 billion over 10 years. Reduction in mandatory minimum sentences would account for $2.5 billion in savings.

The Justice Safety Valve Act: The bill gives judges greater sentencing flexibility for certain drug offenses.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act: This offers incentives for inmates to enroll in programs promoting sobriety. Inmates can whittle time off sentences for participation. If passed, the act could save $100 million over 10 years.

Sound familiar?

Do these “smart on crime” strategies sound familiar? They should. Conservatives pushing federal reforms have backed state reforms such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Oklahoma, passed in 2011.

Yet that state initiative, promising millions of dollars in cost savings and significant and safe reduction in prison numbers, goes unfunded.

Gov. Mary Fallin, who signed the legislation, said last week that she supports it. But let’s see some proof.

Oklahoma leaders should take note of what’s happening in states around us where worries of being perceived as “soft on crime” are being kicked to the curb and replaced by smart on crime strategies. More than two dozen states using those strategies have seen crime rates fall, not rise.

With 27,000 inmates behind bars here, how long can leaders play dumb?

From Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed’s letter to members of Congress urging sentencing reform:

“We are writing to voice our support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill that advances more effective and just criminal sentencing without jeopardizing public safety.

“The federal prison system has had extraordinary increases in scope and cost in the past several decades. Meanwhile, total state prison populations have decreased for the third year in a row, in part by employing probation and parole as a just and effective alternative to prolonged incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

“States are getting smart on crime, while the federal prison system is missing the mark, averaging an annual population increase of 3.2 percent each year over the past 10 years. The system is operating at nearly 140 percent of its capacity, making it more difficult to operate effective faith-based and other rehabilitation programs and increasing safety risks for corrections officials and prisoners…

“The ballooning prison population also comes at a severe fiscal price. Housing one federal prisoner costs approximately $29,000 per year. Our scarce criminal justice dollars should be focused on victims’ services, police, and prison cells for violent criminals and terrorists…” Read the article