The president of a Texas-based conservative think tank is speaking out against the high rate of incarceration in the United States, arguing that the annual cost to house inmates is not fiscally responsible and that the intended outcome is not the same as the actual result.
Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Dallas-based conservative public policy think tank, is one of a growing number of conservatives now advocating to reduce the prison population in the U.S., which incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country, according to the Washington Post. The Institute for Policy Innovation is a signatory organization for Right on Crime, another Texas-based conservative think tank solely dedicated to studying criminal justice reform.
While the U.S. comprised just 5 percent of the world’s population in 2015, it housed nearly 25 percent of the world’s inmates. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 1.53 million inmates in state and federal prisons in the U.S., according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That number was down 2.3 percent from the end of 2014. It was the largest annual decline in the prison inmate population since 1978.
Of those 1.53 million inmates, 53 percent were incarcerated in state prisons on violent offenses. A combined 35 percent of state inmates were convicted on non-violent property (19 percent) and drug crimes (less than 16 percent), according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Meanwhile, states spent an estimated $71 billion on incarcerations that same year, according to a Post report in July.
In federal prisons, just seven percent of inmates who were in federal prisons as of Sept. 30, 2015, the most recent date for which data was available, had been convicted on violent offenses. About 50 percent of those in federal prisons were there for non-violent drug offenses. The cost for incarcerating one federal inmate for one day in 2015 was $87.61, or $31,977.65 per inmate per year, according to the federal register. In 2016, the federal government allocated $217 million to federal prisons and detention centers.
During a recent interview with TheBlaze, Giovanetti proposed several actions he said the federal government and state governments could take on criminal justice system reforms that would not only be more fiscally responsible but treat convicted criminals in more humanely.
Giovanetti said the emphasis in the 1980s and 1990s on increasing sentences and mandatory minimums, or the minimum sentence a judge must give a convicted criminal, contributed to the problems in the American criminal justice system today.
But Giovanetti noted that there is a “growing recognition” among lawmakers today that those decisions made in the 80s and 90s were misguided.
“They kind of came from good motivations on the part of conservatives, but it has really turned out to be, for the most part, a huge problem where you have judges that are literally not permitted to give the sentence that they think appropriate because they’re bound by a mandatory minimum,” Giovanetti told TheBlaze. “As a general statement, they’ve completely taken discretion away from judges to an absurd degree.”
Conservatives are now confronting the price tag for incarcerating inmates, he added. Aside from the cost, they’re also coming to terms with the fact that, in some cases, the effects of reflexively turning to incarceration as a means for punishment has the opposite effect of what lawmakers intended.
“We send someone to prison for a relatively minor offense and a non-violent offense, and then they spend 10 years in prison and now we’ve turned them into a violent offender during the time they’ve been in prison,” Giovanetti said.
“This phenomenon is well documented where a minor offender or a non-violent offender goes into prison with a bunch of violent offenders — he has to join a gang to survive, he’s put in a culture where he’s surrounded by violent people and he learns to be violent to survive and then when he gets out he brings that violence with him.” So, what’s the solution? Giovanetti suggested getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences altogether.
“Incarceration seems to go in the opposite direction of the direction we’d like to go,” which is “rehabilitation,” Giovanetti said.
Federalization of crimes
Along with the inception of mandatory minimums in the 1980s and 90s, congressional lawmakers also federalized a number of crimes that were previously only enforced at the state level “so politicians could be perceived as doing something about it,” according to Giovanetti.
Crimes that were federalized include some sex crimes, gun crimes and the murder of children, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But Giovanetti argued this approach makes no sense because such crimes already carry harsh penalties at the state level. He said the only violent crimes that should be federal are those that cross state lines, such as kidnapping and drug trafficking.
As for nonviolent crimes, Giovanetti argued those could be handled in ways that are “more humane.” One example would be home monitoring.
“Any non-violent crimes, there should be other ways to take care of that, whether it’s home monitoring with an ankle bracelet or something like that,” Giovanetti said. “It’s a cheaper way to monitor and to punish, it’s more humane, it gives the person an opportunity to work at a job to make restitution for the crime that they’ve committed to pay back victims and things like that. You can’t really do that if you’re incarcerated in prison.”
Giovanetti isn’t the only one one on the center-right supportive of these types of policies. Vikrant Reddy, senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, said he agrees with much of what Giovanetti laid out. In a USA Today column published Dec. 9, 2012, Reddy pointed out that the U.S. Constitution, as it was originally authored, included only three federal crimes: treason, piracy and counterfeiting.
Today, the number of federal crimes is literally thousands. According to Michael Cottone of the Tennessee Law Review, “no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given, but estimates from the last fifteen years range from 3,600 to approximately 4,500.”
“This is far from the vision of the Founders who wrote in the Federalist Papers that ‘[t]here is one transcendent advantage belonging to the province of the State governments … the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice,'” Reddy wrote in his USA Today piece.
In the same column, Reddy cited the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia saying in 2011 that federalizing drug crimes was a “great mistake.” Scalia further argued that federal drug cases only act to weaken the third branch of government, whose original mission was to rule in cases where the Constitution itself was in question.
As for how drug cases should be handled in state courts, Reddy pointed to his home state of Texas for one possible solution.
The Lone Star State mandated in 2001 that all counties with a population of more than 550,000 establish drug courts. The model makes nonviolent drug offenders eligible to forego traditional criminal court proceedings and instead participate in a program less focused on punishment and more dedicated to helping the offender through treatment, counseling and testing.
“More than just another type of court, drug courts represent a fundamental shift from incarceration as the primary means of punishing minor drug offenses to mandatory treatment for those offenders willing to take responsibility for their actions, using prison only as leverage to ensure compliance,” Marc Levin, then director of the Center for Effective Justice, wrote of the idea in 2006.
Not only did research find that offenders who take part in drug courts end up committing fewer crimes after their sentence, but it found the idea is also much more economical than incarceration. In 2006, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, estimated that Texas’ drug court program cost anywhere from $2,500-$4,000 per offender per year. Meanwhile, the cost to incarcerate a nonviolent drug offender in Texas during the same year was four times that amount — $16,000 per offender per year.
The idea of drug courts began in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Just 10 years later, there were nearly 500 drug courts across the country, and by 2012, more than 2,700 drug courts existed across every state and U.S. territory. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals states on its website that because of this revolutionary idea nearly three decades ago, “millions of lives have been transformed.”
While conducting a 10-year study, researchers at the National Institute of Justice found that in Multnomah County, Oregon, inmates tried in drug courts were 28 percent less likely to be arrested again on felony charges than if they had gone through the traditional criminal court system. The Sentencing Project, a group that supports criminal justice reform, cited multiple other examples where drug courts resulted in fewer rearrests.
These types of results, according to Reddy and Giovanetti, are what officials and lawmakers should ultimately strive to achieve in every case.