Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan Encourage Conservative Legislators to Think Creatively About Criminal Justice Reform

 

In a January 7, 2010 Washington Post Op Ed piece, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Republican leader of the California State Assembly Pat Nolan encouraged Republican and conservative legislators to take leadership roles in reforming the criminal justice system. Specifically, they suggested that legislators seriously consider implementing policies to reduce prison costs while still protecting public safety.

Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Nolan soberly discussed the dismal realities of America’s prison system – that our expenditures on corrections are 300 percent greater than they were twenty-five years ago, that our prison population is growing 13 times faster than the general population, and that half of the prisoners released this year are expected to return to prison within three years. These statistics reflect a broken system and an approach that fails to provide long-term productive solutions to immediate problems. Messieurs Gingrich and Nolan suggested, however, that there are alternatives to “business as usual” that have proven effective and less expensive. They pointed to Texas, which has seen significant savings and improved outcomes from investing in community treatment programs, rather than traditional incarceration. They also highlighted South Carolina’s efforts to reserve prison beds for dangerous criminals while employing community supervision for lower-risk offenders.

While Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Nolan are surely correct that prison reform is desperately needed in most states, communities will also benefit from better front-end decision-making. Counties bear the burden of funding jails, and unnecessary pretrial detention consumes enormous amounts of resources. Not to mention, pretrial detention has proven to lead to greater conviction rates and more severe sentencing. A comprehensive approach to reform is essential to success. In this partisan climate, it appears there are few legislative priorities that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon. However, reducing correction costs for severely burdened state budgets while improving outcomes surely seems to present potential for cooperation. Let’s hope that Congress hears the calls by Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Nolan and responds accordingly.

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