From Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, conservatives have long known how to be “tough on crime.”
But there is an increasing movement by conservatives to be “Right on Crime” — to insist on transparency in the criminal justice system with the goal of protecting the public, lowering crime rates, and conserving taxpayers’ money.
The movement started in 2007 in Texas, when legislators found themselves with a choice between spending more than $3 billion for 17,000 new prison beds or reforming their system by shifting spending for residential and non-residential treatment-oriented programs for non-violent offenders, along with enhancing in-prison treatment programs.
Conservatives in Red State Texas thus discovered there was an alternative to “locking them up and throwing away the key,”, achieving better results at less cost. And the idea has spread to other states. But the re-evaluation isn’t just based on dollars and sense: There is an element of fairness and justice underlying the positions taken by many conservatives.
Two events last month underscore the point – On April 20, Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, convicted of hiring someone to murder his ex-girlfriend. McAuliffe’s action came after he received a letter signed by 25 notable conservatives and libertarians (disclosure: the author was among the signers) urging commutation. Among them was former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, former Republican Party of Virginia Executive Director Shaun Kenney, and Media Research Center President Brent Bozell.
The argument centered around justice and reasonable doubts. As the letter pointed out, the case against Teleguz relied almost entirely on dubious testimony from three men: the alleged “hit man,” who had incentive to lie since he received a deal sparing him from the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz and who was given most of the details of the prosecution’s story before he implicated Teleguz, and two other witnesses who later admitted they lied in court. The trial prosecutor argued in trial that Teleguz had been involved in another murder in Pennsylvania … but it was later revealed that the testimony was fabricated: the Pennsylvania murder had never even happened.
Indeed, innocence is one of the most persuasive conservative concerns about the death penalty. Since 1973, more than 150 have been exonerated from death row nationally. Here in Virginia, Earl Washington, Jr. came within days of execution before obtaining counsel and proving his innocence with DNA evidence. The permanence of the death penalty and the number of those exonerated with DNA evidence (most cases have no biological evidence) animates many who place a premium on ensuring innocent lives aren’t taken. For them, “accountability” doesn’t include the risk of executing innocent persons.
And a new poll commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute offers evidence that center-right voters share some experiences and views with center-left voters. Fifty-four percent of those who voted for Donald Trump last year say they know someone who is or has been incarcerated, compared with 53 percent of those voting for Hillary Clinton who say the same thing.
Both Trump and Clinton supporters support the legal principle of Mens Rea (meaning “guilty state of mind), requiring the government to prove that a suspect knew they were committing a crime or reasonably should have known they were committing a crime. The two groups are nearly tied – 51 percent of Trump voters believe laws should require a guilty state of mind vs. 52 percent for Clinton voters.
Commanding majorities of Trump supporters also favor other common criminal justice reforms: 59 percent oppose giving police the right to seize private assets of a suspect (civil asset forfeiture) even if that individual is never prosecuted; and 63 percent supported giving judges more freedom to assign forms of punishment (such as civil or community service) other than prison. By a margin of 52-25 percent (with the remainder neither agreeing or disagreeing) Trump voters feel too many people are in prison for non-violent crimes.
The common element is fairness and conservative principles: One should not be punished until convicted. One shouldn’t be punished as a criminal for making a mistake. Not all crimes are equal, nor should they be punished equally. There should be fairness in both prosecution and defense.
All of which prompted Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow with the Charles Koch Institute to note “There appears to be an appetite among conservatives to get ‘right-on-rime. Conservatives have been observing the criminal justice system, and they have opinions on how to make it better. In short, they want reforms that prioritize public safety, respect individual rights, and advance human dignity.”
For sure, conservatives who are “Right On Crime” will likely never support the notion that there is “mass incarceration” or believe that crime is the fault of society.
But opportunities exist for common ground between left and right on key principles and key problems. They await only an innovative legislator to step forward with key solutions.