At a time when political party appears to be the most divisive label one can espouse, telling conservatives to stay positive about the election of a Democratic district attorney sounds like the setup to a bad joke. But new Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner may have more in common with conservative criminal justice ideals than those on the other side of the aisle might expect.
For instance, Krasner has promised to “stop prosecuting insufficient and insignificant cases,” to “target the crimes that matter most,” and to “end civil asset forfeiture abuse,” a particularly controversial practice that allows district attorneys to seize individuals’ assets without a criminal conviction. He also opposes illegal use of “stop-and-frisk” – thereby drawing attention away from low-risk individuals who commit minor infractions and focusing scarce government resources on the 6 percent of individuals in Philadelphia responsible for 60 percent of the most serious crimes. Finally, he has committed to “seek[ing] alternatives to incarceration” in order to “dramatically reduc[e] the number of prisoners held, saving millions of tax dollars.”
Oddly enough, these are many of the same reforms that conservatives have been encouraging in communities nationwide to promote a limited government, personal freedom, and a fiscally responsible approach to our justice system.
Until recently, criminal justice reform was considered a “liberal” project, with little Republican input. But conservatives quickly realized that limiting government expansion through the prison system aligns with their principles more so than originally thought. Since then, progressive Democrats have found unlikely allies in conservative organizations and legislators who have joined initiatives to promote criminal justice reform, providing Republicans with a much-needed voice in the prison reform conversation.
The recent movement correctly characterizes our justice system as an extension of government power requiring the same caution and responsibility as any other government apparatus. Reformers are applying the conservative mantras of accountability, personal freedom, and fiscal responsibility to justice systems around the country to promote safety by concentrating police efforts – and taxpayer dollars – on combatting violent crime as opposed to minor, nonviolent offenses, and by providing offenders with the tools they need to become successful, contributing taxpayers.
These principles, when applied in the criminal justice context, lead to a conclusion that reformers on both sides of the aisle have long realized – that more prisons and more laws do not inherently provide more safety. For instance, a sample audit of the embattled stop-and-frisk program revealed 43 percent to 47 percent of stops were made without reasonable suspicion with a weapon recovery rate of only 1.1 percent. Moreover, pretrial incarceration has driven a 99 percent growth in jail populations in the last 15 years, meaning that the vast majority of prison expansion in America is a direct result of the incarceration of individuals who have not yet been found guilty. Few things should offend the limited-government conservative more than deprivation of liberty by the government without conviction.
With 31.5 percent of its jail population consisting of individuals awaiting trial with no other holds, combined with an average length of stay four times as high as the national average, Philadelphia recognized the need for a fresh approach to criminal justice reform three years ago. A collaborative group of criminal justice stakeholders spurred Philadelphia’s participation in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge – a criminal justice reform initiative that supports local efforts to reduce over-incarceration and racial, ethnic, and economic disparities. The initiative is supporting Philadelphia’s creation of a pre-arrest diversion program to keep low-level drug offenders out of jail, as well as a risk-and-needs assessment tool to identify individuals who can be better served with community-based alternatives to prison. Krasner’s proposals provide hope that Philadelphia’s concerted progress through initiatives like the Safety and Justice Challenge will continue to flourish and expand under new leadership. This trend is likely to spread across the United States.
Although it’s clear from the rest of his platform that Krasner is no conservative, criminal justice reformers on the right should remain hopeful about his approach to over-incarceration, recognizing a wide array of shared goals. If he remains true to his word, Philadelphia will likely remain on a positive path to lower incarceration rates, less crime, and better use of taxpayer dollars. Good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from – even when those ideas come from the other side.
Arthur Rizer is a former federal prosecutor and served as a law enforcement officer for 20 years. He is currently director of criminal justice and security policy with the R Street Institute. @arthurrizer Alyse Ullery is an associate fellow with the R Street Institute.