Stop wasting billions in tax dollars, add millions to the tax base, improve public safety, reduce recidivism, reunite families, save and improve lives, and restore public trust in our criminal justice system? If you think this sounds too good to be true, think again. It’s being done across the country—from Texas to Alaska, from Oregon to Georgia, and it’s been done for long enough that everyone can agree that the changes being made really work. Both crime and incarceration are down, public safety is up, and billions of tax dollars can be invested in things including more law enforcement resources and treatment programs that protect and improve lives rather than destroy them.
By 2007, taxpayer expense for jails and prisons nationwide exceeded $74 billion. Prison has become an industry unto itself—and an unhealthy one at that. Since 2007, more than 30 states have enacted significant criminal justice reforms that are proven to have only positive results. Texas lead the way with reforms that began ten years ago. A state long known for being tough on crime, it still is—but it’s gotten a lot smarter about accomplishing it. Texas alone has saved $3 billion tax dollars, lowered its incarceration rate by 20%, decreased its total prison population, reduced its overall crime rate by 30%, reduced recidivism by 25%, reduced parole revocation by 46%, closed 8 juvenile correction facilities, 4 prisons and is about to close 4 more. By focusing prison space on offenders who actually pose a risk to public safety, directing some of the tax savings to more and better policing, specialized drug courts, and to treatment and diversion programs proven to reduce recidivism, Texas proves it works.
South Carolina has a similar success story. Between 2010 and 2015, the Palmetto State reduced its crime rate by 16% and its prison population by 14%. It has closed 6 existing facilities and avoided building new ones, saving its taxpayers $491 million. Its prison population is now 25% below what it was projected to be in 2014, and its citizens are safer.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich kicked off the Right on Crime conference in Washington last week, meeting with Jerry Madden, the former Texas legislator who spearheaded the Texas bipartisan criminal justice reform, Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform, Mark Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation Right on Crime program, The Prison Fellowship, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and about thirty other thought leaders in Washington to focus on reforms in light of the opioid crisis and meet with members of Congress.
Opioid abuse and addiction now kill more Americans every year that automobile accidents—a staggering 33,000 people. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Nolan published an excellent wake-up call on the opioid crisis at FoxNews.com, and they agreed that a prison term is not going to cure a biochemical opioid addiction.
Now that we have a practical, “common-sensible,” cost-cutting President, it’s prime time for bipartisan criminal justice reform at the federal level. While we recognize that Congress and the White House are dealing with major issues like tax reform and health care, this is an area on which there should be widespread agreement and little to dispute. As a former federal prosecutor for ten years in three districts across the country for nine United States Attorneys from both political parties, I’m painfully aware of the need for prisons to house dangerous and violent criminals for as long as necessary—sometimes forever—to protect the public from their atrocities. However, far too many people are serving what we now know are non-productive—indeed destructive—lengthy sentences for non-violent offenses or drug addiction, when they could be doing public service, receiving actual treatment, and supporting their families and paying taxes. As I’ve heard Pat Nolan say, “Prison should be for people who are dangerous—not people we’re mad at.”
Take, for example, the case of Brad Stinn, the former CEO of Friedman’s Jewelers. The target of a vicious corporate crime task force that used the same unethical and illegal tactics as the corrupt cabal of Enron Task Force prosecutors in my book, Brad Stinn was prosecuted because he had the letters CEO behind his name. Because he had the audacity to mount a vigorous defense against the government’s novel theory that by drawing his salary and a bonus, he committed a fraud, he received nothing resembling a fair trial, was convicted, and an irate judge threw the book at him. The system broke down at every turn, and Brad Stinn was sentenced to twelve years in federal prison. This father of three has served seven years now—doing no one any good at all, costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars—and imposing outrageous hardships on his wife and three children.
The same is true for countless low-level drug offenders and non-violent offenders who are costing the taxpayers millions to cage when they should be working, taking care of their families, and paying taxes. Not only does it cost more to imprison someone that it does to send them to most colleges, the longer one stays in prison, the more difficult it is to renter society as a productive member upon release. Concentrating prison space on dangerous offenders only makes sense.
Alternatives to incarceration, instant but shorter penalties for back-sliding such as weekends in prison, treatment programs, specialized drug courts with greater accountability, volunteer mentoring programs like the Prison Entrepreneurial Partnership, and more and better policing, are proven to work. Mandatory minimum sentences do not. The packages implementing reforms have received overwhelming bipartisan support in more than 30 states. Indeed, the states of Georgia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Vermont passed their criminal justice reforms unanimously.
Almost eighty percent of voters across party lines know that our criminal justice system is broken, and they believe in the importance of rehabilitation—a huge failure of our prison system. Our burgeoning federal Bureau of Prisons eats at least a quarter of the budget of the Department of Justice to cage less than 200,000 prisoners, many of whom do not need to be there. There is growing consensus that 20% of the federal prison population could be released right now with no impact on public safety. I have publicly stated that at least 10% of that population is either innocent or had a trial so unfair one cannot properly judge guilt or innocent. Release of that 20% alone should save millions in operating costs, and the value of the human resources thereby restored to society are incalculable.
It’s time for Congress to show the American people it can accomplish something for the good of everyone. For starters, it makes sense to hold a hearing to collect the details of the three best programs from each of the ten most successful states. The bipartisan coalition that exists already on this issue could help draft legislation. So, while Congress and the White House are fighting about health care and tax reform, they should accelerate this opportunity to work together on things to which all should agree: Fix our criminal justice system and start leading from the front by example instead of lagging behind.