Reducing the prison population is a bipartisan goal
This article by Right on Crime signatory and co-founder of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University Doug Deason originally appeared in Dallas Morning News July 28th 2018.
About 1.5 million people are sitting in state and federal prisons across the U.S. today, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many for nonviolent crimes. Prisoners all too often face inhumane conditions and are woefully unprepared to rejoin society as peaceful, productive and law-abiding citizens.
This weekend I will join Charles Koch and other business and philanthropic leaders for a retreat in Colorado Springs to discuss how we can work together to solve this and other challenges and create a freer and more open society.
We know challenges like these can’t be solved alone. We stand ready to, in the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
And there are few issues in which “doing right” is more urgently needed than fixing our broken criminal justice system.
Chart the growth of the prison population in the U.S. over the last 100 years and you will draw something resembling a hockey stick. For many decades the number of prisoners grew steadily, and as recently as 1972 the total prison population was under 200,000, according to BJS data. In subsequent decades that number exploded, peaking at 1.6 million in 2008 and settling at about 1.5 million today. These figures do not include those prisoners in county jails.
Because this issue now touches so many different lives in so many communities in so many ways, reform has fast become a bipartisan priority.
Many are rightfully alarmed at the inequities in the criminal justice system. African-Americans make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for one-third of inmates, according to the BJS, and compared to the general population, prisoners are far more likely to have a history of mental health problems and drug abuse. A Brookings Institution study found that four out of every five prisoners had zero earnings when they entered prison.
Then there are the costs to taxpayers and innocent family members. The annual cost of running the corrections systems at the national, federal, state and local levels exceeds $80 billion, according to a Washington University in St. Louis study. It is a system that frequently turns folks who were once taxpayers into wards of the state. And it leaves many mothers and fathers to raise their children alone and without the aid of child support.
These mounting concerns have energized support for reform across the political spectrum. As a co-founder of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University, I have participated in panel discussions with CNN’s Van Jones to highlight the need for cutting incarceration rates. As a Republican businessman and a Democratic political commentator, we don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics. But like many Americans, we are willing to put our differences aside to address this critical problem.
As U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., recently said, according to Townhall.com, “overcriminalization is increasingly viewed as not a Republican or a Democrat problem but as an American problem.”
Jeffries and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., are co-sponsors of the First Step Act, legislation that would help rehabilitate prisoners and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process.
The First Step Act embodies the smart-on-crime approach that has led to lower prison populations and lower crime rates in Texas and other states. The bill would increase prisoners’ access to job training and educational programs to improve their re-entry into society. Prisoners who successfully complete these programs could earn up to 54 days toward an early release.
Reforming the criminal justice system won’t be easy or quick. It will require a long-term commitment. But if we want to break the barriers that keep too many Americans trapped in lives of crime and poverty, we will all need to work with unlikely partners.
The leaders gathering in Colorado Springs welcome any allies willing to unite to do right. Let’s not let our differences stop us from working together on these critical issues.