It might be hard to believe but a few Republicans have charted a new course in criminal justice that would make liberals proud. That is, it's a new course to these Republicans.
Eschewing the mantra of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" and embracing "evidence-based policies," on Dec. 14, Republican leaders like former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese signed the statement of principles for the "Right on Crime" campaign. Led by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, this project was launched to offer an approach to criminal justice that is both "tough and smart."
This is good news. Presumably, no longer will a core group of "lock 'em up" politicians distract attention from evidence-based criminal justice interventions. Some of the issues that the "Right on Crime" campaign addresses include: over-criminalization, juvenile justice, mass incarceration, and substance abuse. However, slapping a political stamp on evidence-based policies by calling them "Right on Crime" is just a reinvention of the wheel. Progressives or liberals have been berated as "soft on crime" for decades due to their preference for evidence-based intervention and prevention approaches over "get tough" and "lock 'em up" policy.
But now, in an age of budget deficits and mounting debts at the local, state and federal levels, combined with the admission that "get tough" is a slogan but not a strategy, this conservative campaign appreciates what has been espoused by social workers and criminologists for years.
While evidence-based approaches should be embraced regardless of political party, there is, however, one concern with this campaign -- style and substance. Evidence-based is a catchy phrase for responsible government. While this campaign has the right idea in the use of evidence-based programs -- the style -- if what they implement is not based on empirical science -- the substance -- they may very well undermine their whole mission. Time will tell.
So what does this say about Massachusetts?
Generally speaking, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety is a proponent of evidence-based programs. But what of our crime laws? With encouragement from the public, Massachusetts politicians too often respond to high-profile crimes in a very predictable way: They come up with a law that penalizes offenders ever more harshly so as to deter others in the future and put a stamp on their resolve. There is futility with such an approach.
Most crime can be broadly explained because 1) offenders are either impulsive and don't think about possible consequences, or 2) they don't think they are going to get caught so they don't worry about consequences. This is not an opinion; research shows that swiftness and severity of punishment are not as important as certainty of punishment. In fact, certainty of punishment places an upper limit on swiftness and severity in that if someone doesn't think he or she is going to get caught, it doesn't matter what the consequences are. Crime law should incorporate these principles so as to be more effective. Unfortunately, too often in Massachusetts, anyone who tries to be a voice of reason on the matter is called soft on crime or a criminal coddler.
With this in mind, get tougher laws common in Massachusetts aren't based on 'what works' in criminal justice, but they are based on what works to get politicians reelected. The problem is that these laws actually contribute little to public safety. Sure we can argue that if someone is locked up they won't be a menace, but that someone is locked up means he or she already was a menace, hence the importance of proactive crime prevention.
The use of evidence-based programs is of monumental importance. One can't simply assume that what worked somewhere else is going to work in a new location and here is where governments, including Massachusetts, have fallen short in the past, and where this conservative campaign may very well fall short in the future. Normally, criminal justice agencies measure just outputs, which are the number of people served and money spent; this is important. However, rarely do they measure outcomes, which are what happens to the behavior of the people who were served and cost effectiveness of such programs; this is more important.
Getting smart on crime is something that conservatives are wising up to. Massachusetts politicians need not worry about being called liberal or soft and should get smart on crime, too.