Leaders Educated on Criminal Justice Reform at the NeW Leadership Retreat

At the Network of enlightened Women’s 2022 Leadership Retreat, Julie Warren, Director of State Initiatives for Right on Crime and Right on Crime’s State Director for Tennessee, addressed campus chapter leaders on conservative solutions to criminal justice reform. 

Warren started off her talk by highlighting that conservatives think the criminal justice system isn’t working, but they aren’t sure what the solution looks like. Conservatives want to be tough on crime and support enforcing the rule of law, but for many, Warren points out that it can seem like conservatives are being soft on crime when they question how to best fix the criminal justice system.   

Prior to working at Right on Crime, Warren served as a prosecutor where she learned a valuable lesson about the criminal justice system. According to Warren, the justice system was so focused on enforcing the rule of law and punishing the crime, the system missed seeing the individual behind the crime. Rather than provide a non-violent criminal with helpful programs to turn his life around, the criminal justice system prioritized punishments which led a non-violent offender to graduate to violent offenses. With this realization, Warren recognized a problem and wanted an opportunity to be a part of the solution. 

Warren asked attendees what the purpose of the criminal justice system is- most said to protect the public, to enforce the rule of law, to bring justice, and to be tough on crime. She then asked attendees to describe what being tough on crime actually means- too often, she says, “we are a hammer looking for a nail and in the public environment, we are enabling the hammer and not impacting crime rates in our communities.”  

Warren pointed to Tennessee as an example of being tough on the criminal but not tough on the crime. Tennessee’s incarceration rate is 68% higher than what it was in 1991, but the crime rate for both violent and non-violent crime has increased. Tennessee’s Department of Corrections budget was $900 million in 2017 and today, is $1.1 billion. Looking at the situation, Warren says that “Tennessee’s attempt to incarcerate its way out of its crime problem has caused a massive impact to the state budget, but not to public safety.” 

Conservatives have a place in improving the criminal justice system because we’re asking all the right questions. Ultimately conservatives care about protecting communities and being tough on crime but should define what that looks like and how to make good public policy that supports that vision. One area where conservatives have pointed out a policy failure is bail- Warren states that in local jails, at least 50% of the population is there on pre-trial detention. These offenders couldn’t pay bail, so they have to stay- on the other hand, you could have a violent offender out of jail on pre-trial detention because he is able to pay bail. Conservatives look at this and say it’s not safe for communities, and several conservative groups have called for bail reform.  

Conservatives also point to the family unit as the foundation of society and not the government; prisons have become the mental health provider for the state, instead of families and communities stepping in to help an individual. Warren points out that being tough on crime but not the criminal means placing a non-violent individual in drug court, since they have high success rates, and not remove this individual from their family, job, church, or any other supportive community. This is so that in 10 years we don’t see this individual committing the same crime again. 95% of people in prison will be returning to society, so conservatives should also focus their efforts on making redemption accessible. Our current rules make it harder for former prisoners to get a job, a home, and a driver’s license, which means as a society we’re setting them up for failure. Changing these rules to be more supportive of an individual’s reentry into society means fewer opportunities in the future where they will commit a crime again.  

Several attendees appreciated Warren’s insights into the criminal justice system, as it’s a topic not often talked about on campus and when it is, usually it’s a liberal perspective being presented. Attendees left better equipped to talk about criminal justice reform and with some hope for the future of safety in the United States.  

This blog post was written by Julia Canzano, NeW Campus Program and Events Coordinator.   

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