- - Thursday, August 18, 2016


Most of the discussion on justice reform efforts focuses on federal legislation. Indeed, several bills with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate would aid in safely reducing the federal prison population and addressing the revolving door of incarceration. And while justice reform advocates are frustrated that these bills have yet to come to a vote, focusing all the attention on the Hill misses the forest for the trees.

Of the roughly 2.2 million people currently behind bars in this country, only about 190,000 of them are housed in federal prison. The vast majority of the prison population lies in the states, our laboratories of democracy. And that is where the efforts to reform our justice system are already producing important public safety results.

Dozens of states have already implemented significant justice reforms, and several of them, such as Georgia, Texas and Pennsylvania, have passed multiple rounds of reform measures. Our organizations targeted 12 states for reform work last year and passed important legislation in 11 of them. So the question must be asked: while the federal legislation is stalled, why are the states charging forward with smart justice reform?

First and foremost, almost every state in the country is grappling with very real fiscal concerns. States simply cannot afford the federal government’s cavalier blank-check mentality, where tens of millions of dollars represent rounding errors. Take Illinois, for example: Gov. Bruce Rauner spent most of this year locked in a budget fight with the legislature, and the state is in financial crisis. So it is no wonder that Mr. Rauner has pledged to cut the prison population by 25 percent over the next decade. The cost savings can be in the hundreds of millions, as was the case in Georgia, or in the billions, as we saw in Texas.

When South Carolina signed its sentencing and corrections policy overhaul in 2010, Republican State Sen. George E. “Chip” Campsen III, a member of the Sentencing Reform Commission stated, “This approach is soft on the taxpayer because it will reduce the need to build more prisons. It is smart on crime because community-based alternatives such as restitution and drug courts entail more accountability and have been proven to reduce recidivism.” As of last year, these smart policies produced a reduction in the prison population of 9.5 percent and led to the closure of two prison facilities, reduced probation and parole revocations by double-digit percentages and saved more than $18 million, all while crime continued to decline.

Second, during a time when our country is afflicted with mass shootings and domestic acts of terrorism, state leaders are also deeply concerned about public safety. And reform efforts have proven to lower crime and recidivism rates and focus precious resources on the worst in our society, preventing terrible tragedies. Texas may be the best example of the impact reform measures can have on public safety. The Lone Star State has been a justice reform leader since 2007, and is now enjoying the lowest crime rates since the late 1960s. And it’s not alone. Over the last decade, the 10 states that most significantly reduced their prison population saw an average 13 percent drop in their crime rates. Conversely, the 10 states that most significantly increased their prison population saw only an average 8 percent drop in their crime rates.

Finally, state leaders are acutely aware that justice reform is incredibly popular in their own backyards. Polling from our organization shows that at least 60 to 70 percent of voters in half a dozen key election states believe we are putting too many non-violent offenders in prison and we are spending too much money to keep them there. Additionally, more than 70 percent of surveyed voters in each of these states believe that our criminal justice system’s main goal should be rehabilitating offenders so they can return to society as productive, law-abiding citizens.

State leaders also drove forward with strong justice reform language in both national party platforms at last month’s conventions, and both included well-attended justice reform events. A film commissioned by our organization and screened at the Republican National Convention, “Changing Laws, Changing Lives,” showcased progress on justice reform in Georgia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. The governors from all three states were featured in the film, and participated in a panel discussion on what they are doing to reform their state justice system. The governors received multiple standing ovations from their delegations.

In an election year, it’s presumed that presidential campaigning will distract Washington from making progress, but state leaders are seizing the moment and moving forward with aggressive legislation. At the end of the day, their courage, contrasted against the lack thereof in our nation’s capitol, may not be too difficult to understand. During a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record, every single family in this country is now impacted by our broken justice system. And unlike members of Congress, state leaders have to face their constituents every day.

• Steve Hawkins is president of the Coalition for Public Safety. Holly Harris is executive director of the Justice Action Network.

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