This article by Right on Crime Signatories Ken Blackwell and Ken Cuccinelli originally appeared in the Washington Examiner, February 12th, 2018.
Throughout the last election cycle, there came fevered predictions from many commentators on the Left that, given candidate Donald Trump’s frank messaging about returning to “law and order” and confronting violent crime in American cities, criminal justice reform efforts were officially dead in the water. Criminal justice reform appears “bleak in the age of Trump,” stated one article. “How Criminal Justice Reform Died,” intoned another.
Such fatalism was both misplaced and inaccurate. Misplaced, because the lion’s share of successful criminal justice reforms over the last ten years have advanced at the state and local levels, not in D.C.— mainly by southern red states. With oversight over roughly 90 percent of the country’s incarcerated population, the states will always be the primary mover of criminal justice policies, not the federal government.
But such predictions have now been proven inaccurate as well, given recent remarks made by now-President Trump about the need for federal prison reform.
On Jan. 11, joined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, conservative governors, faith leaders, and justice reform advocates, President Trump drew on the experience of effective state reforms to seek opportunities to “improve our federal prison system, to better promote public safety, and to help former prisoners to reenter society as productive citizens.” He went on to explain that because the great majority of them will leave prison eventually, society has “a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our communities safe.”
He’s exactly right. As many as 95 percent of those currently incarcerated will one day be released, and history has painted a grim picture of how they will fare. Of the 650,000 prisoners who are released nationwide every year, about two-thirds will be rearrested within three years. Much of this can be attributed to a lack of adequate programming behind bars, as well as numerous consequences that come with having a criminal conviction — for example, difficulty renting, getting certain jobs, and obtaining most occupational licenses.
Society is justified in expecting individuals to take ownership not just for their actions, but also for their reformation. This is hampered, however, when the weight of accumulated barriers to re-entry becomes a millstone. Research has been clear that getting a job upon release is among the most critical steps to reducing a person’s likelihood for recidivism. When President Trump and others say society has a “great interest” in helping ex-offenders get on the path of self-sufficiency, he’s speaking a well-established truism.
Fortunately, conservative states have long since begun helping ex-offenders land on their feet upon release. Chief among them: Texas, long known as a “tough on crime” stalwart. In 2007, state lawmakers passed a $241 million “justice reinvestment” package to increase capacity for substance abuse and mental health treatment and expand probation and parole services, as well as community-based diversion programs. This avoided the immediate need for $2.1 billion in spending just to meet their expected needs for new prison capacity.
More recently, Texas has passed indemnity laws to insulate employers and landlords from liability when they extend a job or lease to ex-offenders. This makes it less likely that a criminal record will be an insuperable barrier to work or finding a place to live.
Communities in Texas have been getting safer at the same time. Crime rates have fallen by 31 percent, while incarceration rates have fallen by more than 20 percent. Eight prisons have been shuttered even as Texas’ population has soared, saving millions in annual operating costs.
In 2012, Georgia began investing in efforts aimed at reducing recidivism, including an expansion of in-prison educational resources. They’ve since reduced their prison population and nearly eliminated its backlog of inmates awaiting transfer, all the while reducing crime by 8 percent and saving $25 million. A large reform package passed in Louisiana last year has similar aims of steering less serious offenders away from incarceration and into more effective community-based programs. South Carolina, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, and others have passed comprehensive reforms, as well.
As we mentioned above, the states are the natural gatekeepers for criminal justice reform. But Congress has shortcomings within its own prison system to address, and is quickly running out of excuses for doing so. President Trump, whom so many on the Left falsely assumed would spell the end of reform, has instead sounded a clarion call to advance it.
He was right for doing so, as many conservative states have proved, and it’s time Congress took up that challenge as well.
Ken Blackwell is former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and former Mayor of Cincinnati. Ken Cuccinelli is former Attorney General of Virginia. Both are signatories to the Right on Crime statement of principles.