In 2002, a young disabled grandmother named Cynthia Powell made a very bad decision – she gave in to the pleadings of an acquaintance and sold a bottle of Lorcet pills (effectively Tylenol with a bit of hydrocodone). She had never been arrested before, and had no history of violence or interactions with law enforcement. She currently sits in prison, because the number of pills she had at the time of her arrest qualified for an opioid trafficking charge carrying a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. Because of truth-in-sentencing laws in Florida, she’ll be close to 70 when she is released from prison.
As head of a conservative think tank dedicated to principles of limited government and constitutional liberties, I find two things increasingly obvious: Our criminal justice system is in dire need of comprehensive reform, and that effort is being led not by bureaucrats in Washington but by policymakers and leaders in the states. I look around the country and see great strides by states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. I see policymakers in my home state of Florida starting to join the movement, and I want to get excited at the possibilities for real culture-changing efforts.
The reforms these states have passed will ultimately accomplish two things: They will improve public safety and will save millions of taxpayer dollars. Nevertheless, the road forward is anything but a clear or easy journey.
In our organization’s research of policy initiatives, a particular statistic disappoints me more than all others: our nation’s incarceration rate.
According to data from the International Center for Prison Studies, the United States currently incarcerates approximately 737 people per 100,000 citizens, counting both adults and juveniles. This puts us right at the top of the list – more than Iran, more than Russia, more than Rwanda. We owe it to ourselves to ask why this is the case and how we can correct course.
How have we come to a place where common sense would dictate a drug treatment or diversion program for a first-time offender like Cynthia Powell, but we levy a 25-year mandatory sentence? And what are we doing as a society to address the root causes?
Drug and non-violent offenses have created a revolving door in our jails and prisons, both at the state and federal levels. It’s estimated that as many as one-fourth to one-third of our inmates are in prison for drug-related offenses. Many are there because of oppressive sentencing rules that have eliminated the proper role of judges and created an incarceration-industrial complex trapping far too many families in a cycle of prison, poverty and despair.
Consequently, we have seen our prisons jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of offenders who have the potential to be rehabilitated but who end up sliding further down the path of crime and punishment.
As a society, every dollar we are forced to spend incarcerating an addict is a dollar we can’t spend treating that addict and getting him or her on the path to becoming a productive citizen. Every dollar we spend on new prisons is a dollar we aren’t spending on schools. Taxpayer funds are scarce, and they detract from economic growth.
We expect our government to steward our tax dollars well, and we expect it to provide for public safety in an efficient and effective manner. These two priorities are not mutually exclusive.
There are three specific actions that can and should be championed at the state level to continue the progress conservatives have made in addressing criminal justice policy reform:
- Restore the role of judges in the system. For far too long, judicial discretion in sentencing has been eroded, the unfortunate result of well-intentioned conservatives over many years.
- Begin to address the distinction between those trafficking in narcotics as a criminal enterprise and those individuals selling smaller amounts of drugs to feed their addiction. We want to lock up the bad guys feeding poison to our children, but we should be able to distinguish between those hardened criminals and addicts needing treatment.
- Reaffirm the need for substance abuse and mental health approaches in the justice system. The cost for drug crimes is a sliding scale over time. As individuals reoffend and continue the cycle, the long-term costs of incarceration, safety net use, and lower employability far outweigh the short-term investment in treatment and rehabilitation.
This trio of actions is just a small piece of a very broad conservative policy reform agenda that states must champion. As we seek to promote conservative principles and at the same time address the challenges impacting our society from scourges like addiction, it is my hope that states can be the shining example of how to lead the way forward. There too many Cynthia Powells out there who are counting on us.
Bob McClure is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank based in Tallahassee, Florida, devoted to research and education on public policy issues