Changes in criminal justice system gaining bipartisan support in Congress

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 18, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Using states as laboratories for studying criminal justice reforms, and particularly addressing the issue of prison sentencing, many lawmakers in Washington are prepared to do an about-face on their long-held views about stiff penalties even for minor offenses.

This change of heart, including by some of the most conservative members of Congress, comes at a time when studies show that while the federal prison population has been exploding for several years, a majority of states have been reducing the number of inmates in their penitentiaries and, in many cases, significantly reducing their crime rates.

Even Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have had their differences, are willing to join with more liberal members in the Senate in support of two bills that would reform mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent low-level drug offenders. They’ll accept a skills-training and early-release system for inmates considered low risks of committing other crimes, The New York Times reported.

Some of the traditional “tough-on-crime” politicians are framing their positions in true conservative terms, namely, a way to save money in prison costs and reunite broken families.

Cornyn says “the evidence is in” that there are constructive alternatives to putting people in prison for a long time.

This week, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project released figures showing that in five years imprisonment rates in 31 states fell, with 15 states — including Texas — seeing reductions in the double digits.

Pew notes that California, which reduced its prison population 26 percent, was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court draw down inmate numbers in its overcrowded penal institutions. But other states emphasized prevention and community supervision over incarceration.

The study says Texas taxpayers avoided $3 billion in new prison spending by investing $241 million in treatment and diversion programs.

For years, criminal justice reform advocates have argued that states and the federal government could save billions if they devoted a small fraction of what they spend on prisons to early intervention, prevention and treatment. Many politicians turned a deaf ear to that idea, primarily because talking tough about crime was a vote-getter.

Many of those same politicians had negative reactions when Attorney General Eric Holder proposed last year to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to reduce prison time for those inmates already convicted and sentenced under the unfair guidelines.

Considering that states and the federal government spend $52 billion a year on corrections, it makes economic sense that we find ways to keep as many people out of prison as possible without risking the safety of the public. But it also makes sense on a humanitarian level.

There is growing public support, among conservatives and liberals, for alternatives to incarceration, Pew said. And when low-risk offenders are diverted to community programs with supervision, research shows, there are behavioral changes resulting in more ex-offenders remaining crime- and drug-free.

That should be one of the primary goals of any criminal justice system.

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