Texas faced a choice in 2007: spend billions on new prisons to house its convicts or find creative ways to deal with criminals in the state.
State leaders chose the second option, and Texas’ reforms, which have been championed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have become the model for a conservative movement to reform the criminal justice system.
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The Texas foundation started the "Right on Crime" project in 2010; its "statement of principles" has attracted support from conservative public policy heads like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist.
"It’s one of the more exciting things I’ve worked on," Norquist said.
Right on Crime promotes reforming the criminal justice system by following conservative "first principles" of individual accountability and measured results, said Right on Crime policy analyst Vikrant Reddy.
The group supports transparent and innovative approaches to reforming the system for nonviolent offenders while reducing incarceration, promoting victim restoration, and reintegrating criminals into their communities.
The program’s supporters say Texas is the marquee example of what can happen when states apply the approaches proposed by Right on Crime.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, Texas saved almost $2 billion by diverting some of the resources from building prisons to treatment and other programs.
The criminal justice system is the second fastest area of budget growth for states, said Pat Nolan, a senior vice president for Prison Fellowship, which is cooperating with the Texas Public Policy Foundation on the project.
Norquist said conservatives, who oppose waste in many government programs, ignored waste in the defense and police budgets because those are traditional areas of government work.
Prisons especially were "blowing huge holes" in state budgets, Nolan said.
Much of this spending came in response to the crime wave in the 1970s and 1980s. For years, Republicans pursued a "lock them up, throw away the key" approach to criminals, said Right on Crime spokesman Brendan Steinhauser.
But crime has dropped since the 1990s and the federal government and states now need a new set of policies, said Eli Lehrer, president of the think tank R Street and one of the original signers of the Right on Crime statement of principles.
"The right policy for right now is pretty much embodied in the Right on Crime statement of principles," he said.
Many states including Georgia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina have implemented prison reform similar to Right on Crime’s policy proposals.
Fiscal constraints are not the only force pushing states toward Right on Crime’s reforms. Its proponents also point toward the effect the reforms are having on crime rates.
According to Pew, parole failure in Texas has dropped 39 percent and crime is at its lowest level since the 1960s since the reforms were instituted in 2007.
"We can make real progress and effectively reduce crime and recidivism while not spending boatloads of money," Norquist said.
Texas is not alone in its success. Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (or HOPE) is also reducing incarceration while helping drug offenders stay clean. HOPE subjects the criminals to regular drug testing with the threat of immediate, short-term incarceration if they fail.
Nolan heaped praise on the HOPE program and its results: new crimes dropped by half, while both positive drug tests and missed probation appointments dropped by two-thirds when compared to other probationary programs, he said.
Reducing incarceration can also help keep nonviolent offenders from turning violent, Nolan said.
Prison can change prisoners and make them "antisocial" when they have to reintegrate into society, he said.
"There are ways to hold them accountable in the community," he said, but this effort will require a strong network of support in the local communities. Nolan pointed again to Texas as a good example, saying the state has worked to strengthen its community mental health and drug programs.
"If nobody’s there to catch them, they’ll fall through the cracks," Nolan said.
Reintegration into society after their punishments conclude can also pose a problem, said Reddy.
Criminals’ records loom over them and make it much harder to find a job, creating a "situation where society has effectively incentivized incarceration," Reddy said.
"That’s a really sick situation," he said.
Both Steinhauser and Nolan said the Right on Crime project is an opportunity for all kinds of conservatives to unite behind an issue. Because they have traditionally been tough on crime, conservatives have the credibility to take on this issue, Norquist said.
"I think it’s incumbent on conservatives to work in this zone because nobody else can do it," he said.