In an era of “defund the police,” it’s easy to paint criminal justice reform as a solely left-wing issue. However, a growing number of conservative activists are pushing for what they see as common-sense reforms to decrease the role that government plays in people’s lives by reducing unnecessary policing and prosecution. 

The coalition known as Right on Crime is a partnership between the Texas Public Policy Foundation, American Conservative Union Foundation, and Prison Fellowship. It advocates reducing the costs associated with the criminal justice system by focusing on violent criminals, as opposed to non-violent offenders. 

In fact, the group argues that being too harsh on non-violent offenders could make them a greater risk to the public. Right On Crime also believes in placing individual liberty at the heart of criminal justice and advocating for transparency and personal responsibility. 

“We demand cost-effective approaches that also enhance public safety,” the group’s mission states. “We want a prison system that incapacitates dangerous offenders and career criminals but which is not used in such a way that makes non-violent, low-risk offenders a greater risk to the public upon release than before they entered.”

Right On Crime is not the only conservative organization pushing for criminal justice reform. Other groups include Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union. The Heritage Foundation has also weighed in on criminal justice reform, helping to make a case for policies outlined by the other groups.

Their efforts over the past few years seem to be working. In December 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act, a measure spearheaded by Jared Kushner that received broad bipartisan support and praise.

Drawing on the principles outlined in the conservative case for criminal justice reform, the First Step Act is designed to reduce recidivism by allowing judges more discretion with minimum sentencing requirements and expanding the use of “good time credit” to shorten the sentences of many federal prisoners. 

Another piece of the First Step Act restricts “stacking,” a common practice among prosecutors used to seek longer sentences by adding gun charges to federal drug charges. Intended for repeat offenders, the practice of stacking had become for first-time offenders, adding up to 25 years to their sentences. 

Looking to the value of transparency in the conservative case for criminal justice reform, the First Step Act also called for the development of a new risk assessment tool to determine which federal inmates were most likely to be repeat offenders, which the Federal Bureau of Prisons referred to as evidence-based recidivism reduction.

“It’s part of wider system transformation from one that was based on gut instinct and anecdotes and headlines to decisions that are made based on evidence and research,” Adam Gelb, founder of the Council on Criminal Justice, a bipartisan criminal justice nonprofit, told NBC News.

While the First Step Act received bipartisan support, left-leaning groups like the Brennan Center for Justice argued that it does not go far enough because it only applies to federal prisoners, which number about 180,000, compared to the estimated 1.3 million people incarcerated in state prisons.

“We have so much work to do to re-imagine our system of corrections, our system of justice, so we just need to be careful not to paint sort of a rosy picture of what’s happening,” the Brennan Center’s Lauren-Brooke Eisen told NBC News. “We still have more people behind bars under correctional supervision than any other country on the planet.”

Following the passage of the First Step Act, Right On Crime and other conservative criminal justice reform organizations have turned their attention to issues like increased use of probation instead of incarceration and using technology to increase transparency among law enforcement offices.


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