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Michael Haugen | May 7, 2015
Yesterday, Texas Senator John Cornyn took to the Senate floor to address the importance of criminal justice reform in the context of the unrest in Baltimore. He highlighted several initiatives pending in the Senate to reform America’s criminal justice system to “do a better job of rehabilitating offenders, increase federal safety, and save taxpayers more money.”
As part of his CORRECTIONS Act, co-authored by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, policies would address the need to reduce recidivism rates, rehabilitate offenders, and allow certain eligible, low-risk offenders to accrue “good time” credit through participation in programs designed to prepare them for re-entry into society:
“Low-risk offenders, for example, could earn up to ten days of credit for every month in which they are successfully completing programs like drug rehab, education, work programs, faith-based training and life-skills courses…This legislation would allow these eligible prisoners to use this good-time credit to spend the final portion of their sentence in home confinement or a halfway house,” said Cornyn.
He added that offenders being able to spend the back end of their sentence in home confinement or halfway houses makes it easier for them to transition back into society, reconnect with family members, and could potentially save many thousands per offender in incarceration costs.
In addition to the CORRECTIONS Act, he spoke about another federal bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would create a bipartisan commission to study the federal criminal justice system from the top-down, and suggest piecemeal reforms across the entire spectrum where inefficiencies are found.
He went on to highlight the “smart on crime” successes that states like Texas have had in reforming their own ineffective criminal justice systems. In recent years, Texas has been able to shutter three prisons, saving millions of dollars, but most importantly, all without any spike in crime. Texas’s legislature is currently deliberating on bills aimed at decriminalizing truancy, and expanding eligibility for certain offenders to obtain orders of nondisclosure, among others. Such “second chance” orders can help reduce barriers for such individuals to secure a job, or obtain housing.
Other states like Oklahoma have passed bills that allow judges to use discretion in sentencing, as opposed to mandatory minimums that amount to little more than rubber stamps. On Tuesday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a new bill that ends civil asset forfeiture, requiring a person to be convicted of a crime before any seizure of property can take place, protecting innocent people’s civil liberties.
The states have certainly taken the lead in recognizing deficiencies in their criminal justice systems, but it is refreshing to see leaders at the national level—on a bipartisan basis—start taking steps to reform policies at the federal level as well. Senator Cornyn’s full comments can be found below.
SEN. CORNYN: Like most Americans, I was very disturbed by the scenes that unfolded across our TV sets and not too far away from here, in Baltimore during the last couple of weeks. The whole idea of a young man dying in police custody, the confrontations with police, the looting and burning of innocent minority-owned businesses in their own neighborhoods—these are all scenes that we would expect, perhaps in other countries somewhere else around the world but certainly not here at home. But that’s what we saw, and not just last week but also last summer in Ferguson, Missouri.
So the question arises: what can we do? What can we do about it? What can we do as individual citizens? What can we do as parents? What can we do as neighbors? And then what can we do as members of the United States Congress? And, perhaps more fundamentally, how can we, as a nation, unite to address injustice when it occurs? What steps can we take today to help the diverse fabric of this great nation, for future generations? As I’ve indicated, I am somewhat skeptical that Washington, DC—and particularly the United States Congress—can wave a magic wand and solve these problems. A lot of this is going to have to be worked out at the local level but communities, by families, by houses of faith and civic organizations as well. Obviously they are closest to the situation. But the federal government does, I believe, have a role to play that I’ll talk about in just a moment. But I’ll just conclude in talking about Baltimore by saying that our prayers, I know, are with those involved. And I know that they are carefully considering how best to move forward and heal as well.
But we are doing a great disservice to ourselves and to everyone else so clearly frustrated by the status quo if we isolate Baltimore or Ferguson as just individual instances of civic unrest. And if we don’t step back and see how they fit into the broader issue of our entire criminal justice system.
Madam president, I sometimes call myself a recovering judge. I was a district gunnel for six years. I was a district judge for six years and on the Texas Supreme Court for seven years after that and then served as Attorney General. I mention that just to say that I have had some exposure in my professional life and adult life with our criminal justice system. And I’ve seen how it should work and I’ve seen areas where we need to get to work to reform what’s broken. And I do believe that congress can and must play a role, even a small role. I say “small,” but a significant role, by correcting injustice where we can and making it less likely that situations like those we’ve seen in Ferguson or Baltimore are repeated.
And while we cannot single-handedly fix broken families or broken communities or deal with situations at the local level around the country, we can contribute to efforts to remedy the basic instability of those communities and particularly we can start to make real progress on a criminal justice system to make it lessen the burden on those communities who are struggling with these issues. I know the chairman of the judiciary committee, senator Grassley, is committed to doing what we can through the judiciary committee to pursue criminal justice reform. And I’m happy to say that under senator Grassley’s leadership, many efforts are already under way to consider how we can do a better job of rehabilitating offenders, increase federal safety, save taxpayers more money, and help rebuild that relationship, that all-important relationship between law enforcement and local communities.
One example of how we are doing that is a piece of legislation I introduced in February with the junior senator from Rhode Island, Senator Whitehouse, called the CORRECTIONS Act, which stands for the corrections, oversight, recidivism, reduction, and eliminating costs for taxpayers in our national system act. That’s why we call it CORRECTIONS. Because that’s such a long title. But I think it says a lot about what we’re trying to achieve.
With about 30% of the department of justice’s budget spent on detaining federal inmates and the cost of federal prison skyrocketing, this bill would actually take a number of constructive steps to re-remain to our federal prison system and would also make better use of taxpayers’ money. For example, the corrections act would allow eligible offenders — mainly low-rick or medium-risk offenders; certainly not high-risk offenders — to earn additional days of good-time credit by participating in programs that would help equip them for life outside of prison.
You know, Texas is sometimes considered a tough-on-crime state, and that’s true. But after a while we realized that we also need to be smart on crime because virtually all of the people incarcerated in our prisons will eventually someday be released. And we need — we began to focus on what can we do help them, those who want help and will accept a that help — how can we do a better job of equipping them so that don’t end up recommitting, reoffending and back in prison again. The act allows offenders to participate in programs that will prepare them for life outside a prison. Low-risk offenders, for example, could earn up to ten days of credit for every month in which they are successfully completing programs like drug rehab, education, work programs, faith-based training and life-skills courses.
It is astonishing – I was in East Texas at one part of the Texas prison system where I got to observe some of the prisoners, some of the inmates there attending some of these types of courses. And it is shocking about how poorly equipped so many of these inmates are for life outside of prison and why it’s so important that we try to help those who will accept the help and who want the help prepare for life outside so that they don’t end up back inside. But this legislation would allow these eligible prisoners to use this good-time credit to spend the final portion of their sentence in home confinement or a halfway house. Halfway houses have worked over time as a transition from prison to life in communities, and they work very well. But also technology can allow us to — even allow home confinement and nonviolent, low-risk prisoners who have earned the right to a less confining circumstance during — on the back end of their sentence.
Now, this may sound like a little thing, but it’s important for several reasons. First of all, inmates need to learn valuable skills that can transfer to a life of community engagement instead of returning to a life of crime.
Second, it allows them to reconnect with their families and their communities who need them most sooner. And, finally, this makes financial sense. It costs about $5,000 a year to keep a low-risk prisoner in home confinement, and it costs $30,000 a year to keep them in prison.
Now, I’m not one of those, madam president, who says we just need money and let’s throw public safety to the wind. That is not what this does. We focused first on public safety, as we must, but we also try to get to be smart about it. Not just tough on crime, we try to be smart on crime. And the great thing is that we actually have states, like my state, that have experimented with this sort of approach with great success.
Texas has actually over the recent years closed three prison systems and crime has not spiked. Indeed, many inmates who’ve taken advantage of this program have actually gone on to become resocialized and integrated back into society. So we actually know rather than federal government trying to mandate for the entire nation, here some new experiment, we actually have the laboratories of democracy, otherwise known as the states, under our federal system trying things out to see if it will work. And we learn from that, if we can, and this is an area where we can learn and we should.
So I look forward to working not only with Chairman Grassley and our members of the Judiciary Committee to get the CORRECTIONS Act passed. Last time it was considered last year it passed overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis through the Judiciary Committee. As I said, fortunately Chairman Grassley has made this a priority and he’s put together a bipartisan effort to look at some other consensus ideas that we might add to this prison reform bill, like sentencing reform. Honestly, that’s a little bit more controversial because I’m not one for just cutting sentences on the front end indiscriminately or arbitrarily. We need to make sure we are smart. And I think this consensus building effort that Chairman Grassley has undertaken will help us get on the right place.
There are a number of sentencing reforms that I think we could all support to help address the failures in our criminal justice system. So we should not let the divisive and controversial proposals stand in the way of making real bipartisan progress on the issue of criminal justice reform. But this is sort of a chronic problem that we’ve had around here when we try to do comprehensive everything.
When we try to do comprehensive everything, we make mistakes. We also make it almost employable to do because there are so many different moving parts, it’s complicated and many people remain skeptical about its chances of succeeding. But when you have something like the corrections act which brings to the federal level the successful pilot programs that have been undertaken in the states, it just makes sense that that should be the place we should start. And, indeed, that’s why it has such broad bipartisan support.
But in order to make sure that the conversation about criminal justice reform extends to issues beyond prison reform and sentencing, there’s another step that the junior senator from Michigan and the senior senator from South Carolina and I introduced just last week. This is another idea because we realize the time that congress has and our capacity, both on the floor and in committee, to deal with this complex topic in a thoughtful and deliberate way, that we need some help.
And so what we have introduced is something we call the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would create a commission to provide a top-down review of our entire criminal justice system. After completing a review of the system, this bipartisan commission would work for a unanimous recommendation on how to strengthen it and congress could, much like the 9/11 commission, take bits and pieces of it. We wouldn’t need to embrace all of it or any of it, for that matter, but at least we would have the good and thoughtful work product of some experts who would be able to make recommendations to us in a number of areas.
I was just at a meeting where somebody asked about the Overcriminalization of the regulatory state, and that’s a real problem. And the fact that you can commit a crime without even intending to commit a crime if you happen to violate some regulation somewhere. That’s a real problem. So there are a number of areas that I think we need to look at.
And as I know that our attention was riveted by what happened in Baltimore and Ferguson, I think that those are symptoms of a much bigger challenge and I think this commission would help us focus on building consensus and producing actionable results. Importantly, the continuing dialogue the commission would help us strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities and help us build on consensus items like the CORRECTIONS Act.
So I think the CORRECTIONS Act is a good place to start and then the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, consensus-based sentencing reform — all of these will help us improve our criminal justice system. It will help bring down some of the tensions we’ve witnessed across the nation and help us, again, be smart when it comes to dealing with our criminal justice system.
So I hope my colleagues will join me in this important effort. I think this is the big idea, the big challenge, which will resonate with the people we represent in states and across the country. When they see us coming together on a bipartisan basis and actually trying to solve problems, I think they feel like we’re finally listening to them and doing what we should be doing here in the United States Senate.