When I worked as a spokeswoman at the Justice Department in the early 1990s, crime was through the roof. In 1992, the FBI's violent crime rate per 100,000 people reached nearly 758: The number of burglaries, robberies, rapes and assaults all skyrocketed; the murder rate hit a new high the next year.
President George H.W. Bush had been elected by a wide margin after portraying his Democratic opponent as "soft on crime" because of Massachusetts' weekend furloughs for violent criminals. States began enacting "three strikes" laws; by 2003, over half had passed them, as had the federal government. Mandatory minimums were instituted for many crimes. For years, Republicans campaigned on get-tough criminal justice policies and won, and Democrats showed little interest in doing anything that would leave them vulnerable to "soft on crime" attacks.
Over time, violent crime rates plummeted. By 2011, the most recent year available, the FBI reported that the violent crime rate had dropped to roughly 386 per 100,000, reflecting dramatic declines in murder, assault, rape, robbery and burglary since 1992. Clearly, Americans are safer with violent criminals off the streets.
These days, in fact, more people are off the streets: One of out every 100 American adults is now in prison; in 1970 only one in 400 was. According to The Economist, we incarcerate five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany, and 12 times more than Japan. The Department of Justice reports that federal prisons are operating nearly 40 percent above capacity, with almost half their populations imprisoned for drug-related offenses.
The cost of housing all these prisoners is staggering. According to the Pew Center on the States, federal spending on corrections has grown over the past 20 years from roughly $12 billion to about $60 billion. It costs taxpayers between $18,000 and $50,000 per prisoner per year, depending on the state, and corrections budgets have become one of the fastest growing areas of spending, second to Medicaid.
Conservatives believe that public safety is one of the first duties of government. But conservatives also believe in fiscal responsibility, and corrections budgets are no exception. That's where Right on Crime comes in. "Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending," the group's statement of principles reads. Signatories include a mix of both fiscal and social conservatives: among them, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. "drug czar" Bill Bennett and Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Attorney General Eric Holder gave a much-publicized speech recently calling for policy changes at the federal level to allow prosecutors to sidestep mandatory minimum laws – "executive actions" that don't require congressional approval. What he should have done was endorse legislation giving federal judges broad discretion in applying mandatory minimums. That bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, is being sponsored in the Senate by Democrats Pat Leahy and Dick Durbin and, more interestingly, by Republicans Rand Paul and Mike Lee. Rand Paul is a libertarian and fiscal conservative; Mike Lee is a tea party favorite, a constitutional lawyer and the son of former Reagan Solicitor General Rex Lee. The House version is sponsored by Democrat Bobby Scott and Republican Thomas Massie, a fiscal conservative. Just as with Right on Crime, conservatives of all stripes have endorsed the idea.
The growing awareness of fiscal and social costs is why criminal justice reform is garnering so much support on the right. An era of crowded prisons, limited budgets and sequester cuts has convinced conservatives that something's got to give. I suspect most Americans would agree with Virginia's Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli: "When you're going to spend $25,000 or $35,000 [a year] to keep someone out of society, you have to have a darn good reason for it."