The Unintended Advantage of a Leaner (But Not Meaner) Budget—A Humanitarian Political Compromise in the Making

By Revel

In the wider culture there is a fundamental disagreement over how to interpret the disparity in the crime rate when juxtaposed with the population of the incarcerated. The former has been in steep decline beginning in the early ‘90s, while the prison count is seemingly ever escalating. The political right offers that common sense indicates this as a sure measure of success. We are locking up criminals and of course this would result in a crime decline. Their counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle insist, equally emphatically, that this view is too simplistic. They view this yawning gap as a fruit of government is being overly punitive application of the law. That, and the returns on investment for locking away more peripherally involved criminal actors is diminishing quickly. There is a growing consensus, even among these political antagonists, that the incarceration binge is a failed experiment. Now the search is beginning in earnest to locate a solution.

The criminal justice system, being nearly the exclusive employ of the state, is notoriously resistant to innovation. The exigencies of the prolonged recession may serve to advance an unintended benefit in this case though. Drawing down budgets has required compromises on a few doctrinal points, which are never too far from the conversation of how to punish wrongdoers. When budgets are in surplus there are fewer checks on profligate spending and we can afford a more dogmatic policy with less concern for outcomes. Economic reality has a way of mercilessly eliminating these inefficiencies and in certain historical contexts represents a viable threat to the status quo. Due to the annual expenditure per prisoner running in excess of $20,000 it is becoming apparent that penal policies that have sustained the grand experiment in formal control will have to be subjected to a sober reassessment. There have been popular success stories to tell on that score with the various state initiatives to repeal statutes that have promoted the War on Drugs.

            There exists one lingering constituency that could potentially call a halt to the proceedings, the political class. The Republican Party has been called to task by the literati for its role in cultivating and exploiting voter fears of criminals run amok. Nixon’s crafting of a political message to mobilize the “Silent Majority” has been well documented. More recently the Democratic Party has begun to adopt the brand, working to carve out a constituency in the law and order camp. Candidate Bill Clinton’s brief departure from his inaugural Presidential run in 1992 to personally oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, convicted of killing a police officer, is emblematic of this kind of political symbolism. In the game of one-upmanship the only political costs came from being cast as insufficiently punitive or overly deferential to the convicted. These costs, with a relatively flush economy, were passed on to taxpayers with little difficulty.

Both political parties are now faced with adjudicating a dilemma of their own making. The budget has been misspent on other expenditures like health care and social security while each has exploited fear of crime to considerable effect. The get tough on crime message is a vision that sells well to the electorate, despite the reality that crime has declined to rates not seen since the 1960’s. There is growing evidence that both political parties worked to advance a narrative that crime was still a viable threat throughout the 1990’s. The storyline has been fed by media coverage that tends toward elaborating detail of specific crimes—Jessica Lunsford and Polly Klaas—or crime types—road rage, wilding, knock-out game—that serve to boost the interest factor in the short term. This myopia for the sensational rather than the measured response tends to be a drawback over the long-term. What is lost is a more analytic grasp of the bigger picture which has suffered accordingly.

Essentially, politicians have managed to capitalize on gaps in electorate knowledge to generate votes. The funding drawn from public coffers can then be dispensed to a number of public interest driven constituencies like law enforcement and construction contractors. The difficulties imposed by the financial downturn has precipitated a demand for fiscal restraint, evident in the political reactions of both left and right to the bailouts (e.g. Occupy Wall Street and the more enduring Tea Party) and a growing understanding the public monies are all too often misallocated. The political right is expressing growing concern over the humanitarian costs of imprisonment through religiously informed movements such as the recently passed Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry and George W. Bush’s Second Chance Act. The left’s riding the coattails of the law-and-order movement always looked disingenuous to the political right because it smelled of a betrayal of the underclass, its natural political ally. This reshaping of political identity permits reconciliation with each party’s core values, and a compromise.

Emerging on the contemporary political scene is a détente, or non-aggression pact, in which both parties have worked to de-escalate the rhetoric while attempting to devise a passable solution to the imperative of rolling back criminal justice expenditures. The fear is that the voters may awaken to the contradiction between the earlier get tough on crime narrative and that which is gaining traction today. The Texas Policy Institute’s Right on Crime (ROC) initiative, for example, works toward a few ends to finesse the potential difference in the earlier and updated framing. Their work advocates for adjustments like cost cutting criminal justice administration, all while assuring reforms highlighting victim support balanced with community safety. The tacit unanimity, or lack of overt hostility, has been a fortuitous consequence forced by the aforementioned reduction in the available budget. ROC and the growing number of other efforts of this type have ably populated the public discourse because of a fundamental shift in public attitudes toward over-incarceration and growing suspicions of governmental claims to effective delivery of service. Pushing forward on a variety of fronts these groups will earn success with policy adjustments will be forthcoming in an era decidedly less averse to experimentation than the last. 

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