This blog’s proprietress takes a lot of heat from critics for a letter she wrote with Grover Norquist calling for an investigation of Rahm Emanuel over his activities at Freddie Mac. It was seen as the worst thing of all time to team up with Norquist, who has only malign intentions at heart.
Surely all of those critics will now line up to castigate the NAACP, who today released a report that Norquist, David Keene of the American Conservative Union and others have embraced about prison reform.
The report examines escalating levels of prison spending and its impact on state budgets and our nation’s children. It uncovers a disturbing connection between high incarceration rates and poorly performing schools.
Misplaced Priorities tracks the steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system. For instance, in Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, more than 65 percent of the lowest-performing schools are in neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration. Researchers found that over-incarceration most impacts vulnerable, often minority populations, and that it destabilizes communities. The report offers recommendations that would help policymakers downsize prison populations and shift the savings to education budgets. Connecticut spends approximately 400,000 to incarcerate a juvenile offender per year vs. less than 12,000 a year to educate a young person.
This is a very positive development. For years, the default position on the right has been a “tough on crime” approach to prison policy. This ends up leading to mass overcrowding and the highest rates of incarceration in the world. In addition to the consequences for human rights and human dignity, there are serious consequences for state budgets. Over the past few years, some conservatives have slowly backed away from the “lock ‘em up” strategy on criminal justice, and toward a smart on crime approach. This addresses mass incarceration as a problem to be solved, and emphasizes treatment, rehabilitation and intelligent parole policies to reduce recidivism and lower the prison population. And it has been successful in such far-flung places as Texas and Kansas.
There are downsides to the budget-focused prison policy solutions. It could lead to putting ex-offenders into debt by making them pay for their jail time. But the NAACP report has the right idea. The connection between incarceration and education hasn’t been well-studied, but they make a compelling case. And the fiscal burden is pretty obvious. Prison spending is accelerating at several times the rate of education spending and it doesn’t have to be that way. And Norquist is on board.
“We’re keeping certain people in prison for how long — at $20,000 a year, $50,000 a year in California,” Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform and a self-identifying tea partyer, told Roll Call. “Does that make sense? Do you really want taxpayers paying that much?” [...]
He added that the NAACP’s new report — called “Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate” — is a timely answer to the “fiscal urgency” facing lawmakers. It makes the case the sentence reductions, rehabilitation alternatives and educational opportunities will help reduce the nation’s high prison population. To emphasize the point, the NAACP has purchased billboards inside airports and along major roads in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Richmond that say, “Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world’s people and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”
“If you look at the state level, you can see Democrat-led states, Republican-led states all making common sense, what we would call progressive — but in the most basic ways they’re also conservative and libertarian — reforms to adopt a smarter, safer and more cost-efficient approach to criminal justice reform,” Jealous said. “We think it’s important to actually make that bipartisan support visible nationally.”
This is the opportunity for a paradigm shift. We can and will have the argument about what to do with the budget savings afterwards. But if Grover Norquist wants to jump aboard on smart on crime policies that reduce state and federal spending, reduce the prison population and reduce crime while increasing post-corrections productivity for ex-cons, I’d welcome him.
Forcing ex-offenders to pay for their incarceration is yet another perverse policy that makes successful re-entry next to impossible.
As I’ve written before, though, an exclusively fiscal approach is one that can produce some very counterproductive impulses, such as putting offenders in debt in order to close budget gaps. All that does is encourage someone to seek illicit, and therefore untaxable, income.