My view: Let's reserve costly prison beds for dangerous offenders
As the economy continues to sputter, Utah should continue to heed the practical wisdom of the frugal family and tighten its belt. There can be no sacred cows in the budget.
One area of spending that has traditionally been “off limits” for cuts — the prison system — can no longer escape examination. Utah’s growing prison population, which currently costs state taxpayers more than $250 million annually, is projected to add an additional 2,700 prison beds in the next two decades. If that increase would make us safer, it would be worth it.
But many of these additional beds are not for dangerous and serious offenders. In fact, Utah is sending more nonviolent offenders to prison than it did a decade ago and keeping them behind bars for longer periods of time. This includes a steep increase in female offenders as well as probationers sent to prison for “technical violations” of the terms of their supervision rather than for committing a new crime. In other words, many of those we choose to send to prison (or back to prison) are low-risk, nonviolent offenders.
This is costly and counterproductive. Research shows that low-level offenders often leave prison more dangerous than when they entered.
As conservatives, we pride ourselves on being tough on crime, but we also must be tough on criminal justice spending. The question underlying every tax dollar spent on corrections should be: Is this making the public safer?
We support cost-effective approaches that strengthen families, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety while keeping punishments reasonably in line with the seriousness of the crime committed. While prisons most certainly play an essential role in keeping serious criminals behind bars, it makes no sense for low-level offenders to occupy expensive prison beds when there are proven less costly ways to supervise them in the community without hindering public safety.
Across the nation, other states have faced the same dramatic increases in prison costs, which are now the second-fastest-growing item in state budgets behind only Medicaid. Several of these states have found innovative ways to cut corrections spending while maintaining public safety. Texas, for instance, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment, with impressive results: Crime rates are at their lowest since 1968, and the falling inmate population enabled Texas to close three prisons, avoiding $3 billion in prison costs.
States like Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota have adopted similar reforms that reduce prison populations and corrections costs while improving public safety, allowing them to reinvest some of the savings into programs proven to cut crime and reduce recidivism.
Most importantly, these reforms are allowing states to provide those who have made poor choices in their past a genuine opportunity to turn their lives around, reform themselves and become productive members of society.
And Utah is up next. Last week, a coalition including Gov. Gary Herbert, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Attorney General Sean Reyes embarked on a process to make smarter public safety decisions that will save on taxpayer spending. They have called on the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to examine the state’s criminal justice system and develop policies proven to cut crime and criminal justice spending.
As signatories to the national Right on Crime movement, we are conservative leaders working to apply our conservative principles to the criminal justice system. As such, we are pleased that Utah is joining other states in demanding more cost-effective approaches to public safety, and we wholeheartedly support the efforts of Utah’s leadership to create a more effective criminal justice system.
Utah has an exceptional history and tradition of industry, personal responsibility and support for essential, self-governing institutions, such as faith and the family. It is time to apply these principles to the criminal justice system. We are eager to see CCJJ’s policy recommendations in the coming months and look forward to smarter taxpayer investments, safer communities and stronger families for Utah.
Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform and signatory for Right on Crime. Derek Monson is policy director at Sutherland Institute and signatory for Right on Crime.
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