Compass: Alaska conservatives can lead way to cost-effective criminal justice

With more and more public dollars going to state corrections, the time is right for Alaska conservatives to ask the fiscally prudent question: "How can we get the most from the money we spends on public safety?"

As leaders of a national conservative movement called Right on Crime, we believe that by applying conservative principles to criminal justice policy, states can build a more cost-effective system that protects citizens, restores victims, and reforms wrongdoers. We hope Alaska will follow the same path taken by a growing number of states and reap similar rewards, and we stand ready to help.

Launched in "tough-on-crime" Texas, Right on Crime is anchored in the belief that for too long, conservatives have abandoned their limited government principles when it comes to criminal justice spending - pushing construction of more and more prisons without regard to what it costs or, more importantly, whether such an approach actually improves public safety. Our prison system now costs states more than $50 billion per year, up from $11 billion in the mid-1980s. Corrections has been the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid, and consumes one in every 14 general fund dollars.

These huge investments might make sense if we were earning significant public safety dividends, but we aren't. Instead, recidivism rates remain unacceptably high. In Alaska, for example, nearly 45 percent of offenders released in 2004 had committed a new crime and landed back in prison within three years - the highest such rate for any state.

With such a poor return on investment, conservatives can no longer sit idly by. They must challenge ineffective public spending on prisons just as they have sounded the alarm on expenditures for education, health care, and other government programs.

Fortunately, momentum for change is building around the country. Conservative governors and legislators in states like Georgia, South Dakota and Ohio are taking the lead in pushing sensible criminal justice reform, following the approach pioneered by Texas. Facing an increase of $2 billion in prison costs, Texas leaders in 2007 chose another path, expanding treatment and diversion programs and increasing the use of parole for low-risk offenders. In the wake of the reforms, parole revocations are down by 39 percent, Texas closed one prison in 2011 and is scheduled to close two more in 2013. Most importantly, Texas is now experiencing its lowest crime rate since 1968.

Last week, former Texas legislator Jerry Madden spoke at a joint hearing of the Alaska Legislature and shared the experiences of these other states. What happens next is up to the Legislature, but there is no doubt that Alaska can benefit from a new direction. The state has the 11th fastest growing prison population in the nation, with only Kentucky and West Virginia experiencing a greater per capita increase in incarceration between 2000 and 2007. Alaska spends almost $50,000 annually to imprison an offender, driving the state's yearly budget for corrections to more than $330 million.

Lawmakers have multiple options when it comes to reform. One natural starting point would be the establishment of a commission to lead a comprehensive review of sentencing and corrections policies. Such a review would reveal what's driving inmate population growth in Alaska, what changes might be appropriate, and how government spending can most effectively be controlled.

Strong conservative leadership on corrections that makes government more accountable and more cost-effective is always a winning recipe. We look forward to providing support as Alaska lawmakers craft sensible policies that will reduce crime, restore victims, and control costs.

The bottom line is this: It's time to be as tough on criminal justice spending as we are on the criminals who threaten our public safety.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform. Jerry Madden is former Republican chairman of the Corrections Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. Both have signed on to the Right on Crime campaign.