Florida has long been one of the nation’s top importers in the most important category of all – people. Whether to find opportunity in a state with no income tax or to enjoy a blissful retirement, Florida has been a shiny beacon for millions of people from other states and countries. Now, in addition to importing people, Florida has an opportunity to import conservative criminal justice reforms from states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina that have proven it is possible to reduce both crime and incarceration.
In 2016, Florida began taking small, but important, steps in the direction of reform. Advocates in Florida who are eager to see the state go further in the coming years will need to continue doing what they did in 2016: making conservative arguments that focus on holding both offenders and the criminal justice system accountable, keeping families together, and reintegrating offenders into the workforce. In the world of criminal justice, there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue reform. The conservative arguments are the right way forward—they always have been—and advocates should continue to have confidence in the conservative argument for why reform is imperative.
To fully understand how we can chart a path forward to a criminal justice system that is at once smaller and more effective, we must understand how we arrived at the status quo in which, as of 2017, 700 out of every 100,000 Americans is behind bars.
For the sake of comparison, Australia incarcerates 150 out of every 100,000; England and Wales incarcerate 130 out of every 100,000; and Canada incarcerates only 114 out of every 100,000. In these Anglo-American nations that share a common legal and political heritage with the United States—and thus where reasonable comparisons can be made—incarceration rates are far, far lower. America’s prison-focused strategy for crime control made sense in an earlier era, but the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of incarceration.
The 1950s and early 1960s were a relatively peaceful and low-crime era. The “white picket fences” caricature of this period is perhaps overstated, but it is true that levels of basic street crime, such as theft, murder, and assault, were fairly low. For reasons that are still unclear, this tranquility began to ebb in the late 1960s. Some sociologists blame the debased social mores of the period—the phrase “if it feels good do it” may have become a criminal mantra, not just a hippie mantra—but whatever the cause, crime began to rise throughout the Western, developed world, including America.
As violent crime increased rapidly every year from 1968 to 1994, Americans understandably lost patience with politicians they perceived as having little to offer but excuses for lawbreaking. Progressive policy-makers argued that criminal behavior was rooted in social pathologies like racism that could not be fixed with mere legislation, and thus, lost credibility with the public due to their inaction. Conservatives who believed in personal responsibility stepped in to fill the breach, arguing for more incarceration. To this day, Americans of a certain age remember how Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush (not to mention countless state and local politicians) placed crime control at the center of their political agendas and “tough on crime” rhetoric at their center of their campaigns. By the 1990s, even progressives got the message, and politicians like Bill Clinton ran for office on the promise that they too would be “tough on crime.” Clinton notoriously even left the presidential campaign trail in 1992 to return to Arkansas to oversee an execution.