Conservative Revolution Anyone?

Conservative Revolution Anyone?

“New Challenges, Timeless Principles.”  That was the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference slogan.  Well, conservatives are at a crossroads.  Bold voices are calling for a timeless conservative principle–personal responsibility–to be applied to a new system.

After the1994 “Republican Revolution” conservatives successfully united and pushed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act to President Clinton’s desk, where it was signed into law.  The timeless principle of personal responsibility was successfully applied to a tough challenge:  welfare in America.   The 1996 welfare reform victory provided temporary assistance to vulnerable people in need.  The assistance was distributed in a limited fashion that incentivized recipients to take personal responsibility for their lives, to find work, and become self-sufficient.

There is growing sentiment from policymakers and the public that it’s time to apply this same timeless principle to a modern challenge:  the criminal justice system. When we punish the wrong people or use disproportionate sentences, we cripple people’s ability to take personal responsibility for their crimes and then successfully demonstrate that personal responsibility when they are released.

For example, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) recently expressed his opposition to marijuana use, but was critical of incarcerating low-level drug offenders for lengthy periods of time.   He pointed out that the last two (arguably three) Presidents of the United States could have conceivably been put in jail for their use of marijuana and as a result, could have “ruined their lives”.

Representative Richard Nugent (R-FL), a former sheriff, has sponsored the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act (H.R. 401) to “help give law enforcement the tools and training they need to improve the way that our legal system interacts with individuals suffering from mental health crises.”  Mental health courts and other tools supported by the legislation help keep the wrong people out of corrections facilities, reserving bed space and resources for programs that will incentivize personal responsibility and have been proven to reduce recidivism.

While conservatives, like those who belong to Justice Fellowship’s network and the leaders supporting Right on Crime, have been making headway on smart criminal justice reforms in the states, more needs to be done to address the federal prison system.  Since 2000, the Bureau of Prisons’ budget has nearly doubled.  The average cost of housing an inmate in a Bureau of Prisons facility is $29,000 annually.  The Bureau requested $6.9 billion dollars in federal funds for FY2013.  This swelling budget is necessary to manage the Bureau’s serious prison overcrowding.  In 1980, the federal prison population stood at 25,000 people.  Today, it’s struggling to manage 218,000.  That’s 139 percent of its capacity.

This is dangerous for corrections and the public.  Last year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report noting that if nothing is done to reduce overcrowding, the growing prison population will seriously jeopardize prison safety, since each corrections officer will be required to manage more prisoners.  Further, not enough staff and space makes it difficult to implement critical programs proven to reduce recidivism.  That includes free faith-based programs, like those offered by Prison Fellowship, the program division of our umbrella organization Prison Fellowship Ministries.  When these programs are compromised, people in prison miss out on guidance and mentors that help them reflect, take personal responsibility for the crimes they committed, and seek opportunities that help them transform their thoughts and behavior.  They leave prison ill-prepared to lead honorable, self-sufficient, and crime-free lives.

By critically analyzing who we have in prison, whether the sentences are just, and what’s working to reduce recidivism, we can better allocate resources and make our communities safer.  Justice Fellowship fully supports just punishment.  We also believe in a timeless Biblical principal:  redemption.  We need to incentivize and prepare prisoners, the majority of whom will return to our communities, to become self-sufficient individuals and good neighbors.

Senator Paul recently introduced legislation, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), which he described as “necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties.”  Justice Fellowship applauds this “front-end” reform proposal, but also calls for a conservative revolution to comprehensively reexamine the federal prison system.  It’s time to demand that the Bureau’s success be measured not by increases in the number of people we lock up, but by decreases in how many people return.   Let’s take a page from history and let personal responsibility drive effective and comprehensive federal prison reforms.

Craig DeRoche is the president of Justice Fellowship, the advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a nonpartisan Christian nonprofit organization that provides ministry and programs in over 1,000 state and federal prisons nationwide.  DeRoche is the former Republican Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.