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With State of the Union, Obama Has A Last Chance to Lead on Criminal Justice Reform

In tonight’s State of the Union address, President Obama has an opportunity to draw on the lessons and successes of conservative states to finally propel criminal justice reform into the federal system. Several bipartisan bills variously addressing federal sentencing, corrections, and default “mens rea” requirements—among others—are currently pending in Congress and, according to Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin, would constitute a major step towards right-sizing the federal justice system:

“We look forward to hearing proposals that will reduce prison populations, reduce costs, allow former offenders to find work and reunite families. Voters know that criminal justice reform works, and they expect the President to offer viable policies like those that are working well in the states.”

Over the course of the last ten years, conservative states such as Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and others have responded to the burgeoning growth in their respective criminal justice systems with a paradigm shift. Decades of following a “tough on crime” mantra—an understandable response to the increased incidence of crime in the 1960’s and ‘70’s—nonetheless allowed many corrections systems to become the second-fastest area of growth in state budgets in recent years, while producing insufficient returns on public safety.

Faced with the prospect of billions in new spending on prison space, these states have instead moved to a more individualized, data-driven approach that emphasizes proven alternatives to incarceration for amenable offenders, prioritizes victim restitution, and protects taxpayers through intelligent justice reinvestment programs.
The results have been impressive. Since 2005, Texas has reduced its incarceration rate by 12%, while simultaneously reducing its crime rate by 24%—its lowest rate since 1968. Other states have enjoyed similar success following their reforms.

Lagging behind, however, has been the federal justice system. Its prison population in the last thirty-five years has outstripped national population growth over the same period by a factor of 20, while the Bureau of Prisons currently consumes a quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget. While state prison populations have safely been falling for years through “smart on crime” initiatives, the federal system has been slow to catch up, resulting in overcrowding, inefficiency, and one-size-fits-all sentencing models. Systemic reform is needed, and can be achieved while preserving public safety.

Right on Crime will be monitoring the President’s comments on criminal justice reform as they occur, and will be reacting from our Twitter account.

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