Opinion: Daily Journal

On Genuine Bipartisanship

RALEIGH – All the talk in Washington about bipartisanship is phony – and everybody knows it.

Democratic leaders and the Obama administration are going to try to ram their latest health care bill through Congress by changing the rules. Republicans are going to try to stop them. In practical terms, there is little room for genuine bipartisanship because two sides see the problems of health care in diametrically opposed terms – the Left thinks the answer lies in mandates and tax hikes while the Right thinks the answer lies in choices and tax cuts.

But here in North Carolina, there is an opportunity for genuine bipartisanship on a critical issue: prison overcrowding.

The current criminal-justice system in our state is clearly broken. Crime rates are lower than they were a generation ago, it’s true, but there still far higher than they were two generations and longer ago. So are the costs to taxpayers, who are paying tens of millions of dollars more to Raleigh every year to finance just the prison construction of the past few years – and who will have to pay more than $200 million more a year to fund new prisons through the end of this decade unless something is done.

That “something” is really several things. Some may not get bipartisan agreement. But one area of potential consensus is to divert more non-violent offenders into alternatives to incarceration.

I’m not suggesting that North Carolina should go soft on dangerous criminals. Violent thugs and habitual felons need to be locked up. It’s cheaper to keep them behind bars than to let them loose, if you properly account for the costs of the crimes they commit. But the last time I checked, violent and habitual felons accounted for only about 60 percent of the state’s prison population.

Who are the other inmates? They include drug users, petty thieves, drunk drivers, and probation violators. Some are guilty of “crimes” that are more properly considered addictions, stupidity, or personal moral failings that do not violate the rights of their fellow citizens. Others are guilty of real low-level property crimes but are more likely to turn towards rather than away from criminality if mixed into the general prison population.

State policymakers need to find alternative ways to handle these offenders. The state of Texas did a few years ago, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and increasing the chance of saving some addicts and screw-ups from entering a life of crime. The state puts more emphasis on substance-abuse treatment, post-release employment, faith-based counseling, and graduated sanctions to respond to probation and parole violations. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has been at the forefront of the state’s criminal-justice reforms, and offers this quick summary of the results to date:

In 2008, 1,016 fewer Texas parolees were alleged to have committed a new crime than in 2007…While the primary benefit of reducing crime by parolees is the averted human and economic toll on victims, preventing crime also saves money. Incarcerating an additional 1,016 parolees would have cost $20.8 million. Moreover, building 1,582 prison beds would have cost $76.2 million.

Prison costs 13 times more than parole, but if supervision, treatment, workforce development, and chaplaincy for parolees are scaled back, more parolees may commit new crimes and be revoked to prison. The result: more crime and higher costs to taxpayers.

Instead, we must continue to break the cycle of crime. Since prisons consume 85 percent of the corrections budget, the best way to save money is to prevent crime so fewer lockups are needed.

There is substantial room for liberals, populists, conservatives, and libertarians to agree on such policies. There is, in other words, room for real bipartisanship, or tripartisanship, or omnipartisanship, when it comes to criminal-justice reform.

On health care reform, not so much.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation