While Americans seem to be sharply divided along partisan lines when it comes to important domestic policy issues -- take health care, immigration or the national debt, for example -- in at least one area of national importance, conservatives and liberals are increasingly united: criminal justice reform.
With only 5 percent of the world's population, America incarcerates 25 percent of the world's jail and prison population, imprisoning individuals at a rate five times higher than comparable Western, industrialized nations. During the upcoming fiscal year, the federal government would spend nearly $7 billion, a nearly $300 million increase from this year, under the president's budget proposal to house prisoners and very little, comparatively, on investments to curb the deluge of prisoners entering the system.
Policymakers and opinion leaders from both sides of the aisle recognize that this rate of incarceration is not sustainable or wise and are increasingly rallying around the same common-sense solutions to improve public safety while saving money. Prominent conservative leaders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III, and President of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist all have called for an overhaul of the criminal justice regime.
Despite the growing bipartisan consensus in support of criminal justice reform, the federal government has done little in recent years to address the pressing issues of growing incarceration rates, prison overcrowding and recidivism. These issues place a heavy burden on the judicial system and on society at large. Incarceration trends are not promising, nor are estimates that the federal prison population is projected to grow substantially over the next several years. We cannot ignore the significant challenges this creates for the Bureau of Prisons and continue to believe that the "lock 'em and leave 'em" approach is working.
The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing to address rising prison costs. It's promising that Congress is talking about the issues, but the time for talk is over -- it is time for Congress to act, and it should look to states for the road map.
In several states, legislators have crossed the aisle to build consensus and enact reforms on a bipartisan basis, easily outpacing the federal government. In tough-on-crime Texas, the Republican chairman of the state House Corrections Committee worked with the Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to shepherd through legislation in 2007 that increased drug treatment capacity and expanded diversion from prison for nonviolent, low-level offenders. Similarly, the Georgia legislature unanimously passed a bill this year that diverts low-level offenders away from prison and, when appropriate, into drug treatment, reserving prison for dangerous offenders. States such as Kansas, South Carolina and Ohio have enacted similar legislation.
Bipartisan reforms at the state level have proved to be socially and economically beneficial. Texas' reforms saved an estimated $440 million in a single year. Over the past few years, its prison population has decreased, along with its crime rates, allowing the state to close a prison for the first time in history in 2011. Other state reforms have had similar experiences.
Instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of these states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth. Congress can start with proven solutions that reduce recidivism and give prisoners a second chance. One example is increasing the number of days that a prisoner can earn off his sentence for good behavior, called "good time credit." Congress also should implement programming within prisons that would increase the likelihood of prisoners' success after release, such as more drug treatment programming, educational opportunities and vocational training, all of which have proved to be effective at reducing recidivism. These investments make it less likely that the government will have to spend money in the future to re-incarcerate the same people.
Congress also should consider who is incarcerated in federal prisons. Sensible people agree that violent criminals belong behind bars, but the reverse is often true as well -- many low-level, nonviolent offenders do not belong behind bars. The increased use of diversion programs, probation and other prison alternatives, all of which many states have successfully employed, should be systematically implemented by the federal government.
At a time when almost every issue seems to bitterly divide Democrats and Republicans, reforming our flawed criminal justice policies has produced consensus rather than division across our nation. Congress ought to take advantage of this political consensus to develop and enact practical yet effective solutions and embrace criminal justice reform.
Former Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, West Virginia Democrat, was chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies. David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a member of the board of directors of the Constitution Project.
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