Smart on Crime Does Not Mean Soft on Crime

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One of the areas where Republicans are objectively better than Democrats as executives is at dealing with the problem of crime. The old view of this subject is that Republicans are better on crime because they are tougher on crime, whereas Democrats are bad on crime because they are soft on criminals. This simplistic view may have at one point been true but it no longer reflects the reality on the ground.

The truth is that many Democrats running for statewide office, realizing that their party had a “soft on crime” image that needed to be dealt with, became more committed to senselessly jacking up sentences and riding in the overcriminalization parade than their Republican counterparts. The end result of this was that by the 90s, everyone had begun to realize that America was facing an over-incarceration problem that reflected both a failure of the current system to actually deter crime and also threatened the financial stability of many state budgets.

Accordingly, both Republican and Democrat statewide administrations began testing the waters of various programs designed to reduce incarceration rates. Democrats – not really understanding what motivates crime and having no real concept of the Law of Unintended Consequences, tried a bunch of ineffective measures, such as California’s Proposition 47, which essentially just thoughtlessly re-classified a ton of felonies as misdemeanors, leading California’s already over-taxed metro police forces to just stop making arrests for them at all. The predictable end of this overly simplistic policy  championed by Jerry Brown – is that California is now facing a major statewide crime wave that threatens to politically topple anyone who doesn’t loudly condemn the formerly popular ideas of Proposition 47.

Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, on the other hand, both had tremendously high incarceration rates after decades of Democrat statewide rule. Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal have, respectively, successfully reduced the incarceration rates in their respective states while actually seeing a reduction in crime. Instead of a mindless program dedicated to essentially declaring that certain crimes would no longer be punished, these states instead understood that not all crimes are created by the same kind of people or for the same reasons, and took active and thoughtful measures to divert people away from the prison population who were susceptible to pre-prison rehabilitation and who would have likely become career criminals if they were incarcerated:

In 2007, having projected a prison-bed shortfall of 17,000 as incarceration rates climbed, the Texas legislature sought to identify ways to curb prison growth while maintaining public safety. With the realization that a short-term investment would avert greater, long-term spending, Texas made a $241 million investment in evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism, institute swift and graduated sanctions, and establish drug courts.

To address stubbornly high juvenile incarceration rates, Texas took steps to reform that corrections system as well. The legislature passed reforms aimed at banning the commitment of juveniles to secure state facilities for misdemeanor offenses, reducing the maximum age in which juveniles would be permitted in those facilities, and redirecting certain offenders toward evidence-based community programs instead of jailing them.

The result has been impressive. Since enacting these reforms, Texas has seen the closure of three prisons and a 25 percent reduction in its recidivism rate. Additionally, Texas taxpayers have saved nearly $3 billion in prison costs and have enjoyed their lowest rate of crime since 1968. As Texas has taken point in sensible criminal-justice reform, other states have followed suit with similar legislation. Georgia and Alabama have recently passed sweeping reforms aimed at lowering their own high imprisonment rates (particularly among African Americans) and seeking to divert minor, lower-risk offenders toward community-based programs proven to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Commenting on these programs, many liberal publications have remarked that Texas (and other states) have gone “soft on crime” and that doing so is working. The experience of California indicates that going soft on crime just for the sake of being soft on crime is a recipe for failure (and more crime). On the other hand, being smart on crime yields real results – and seems at this point to be the exclusive purview of Republican governors.