Domestic Policies

The time is now to reform our criminal justice system

AP

 (AP)

This week, I had the privilege of testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the growing consensus from both Republicans and Democrats that our swelling criminal justice system is in need of reform.

Over the course of the last decade, various states across the country have been coming to the stark realization that their corrections apparatuses have grown unwieldy, ineffective, and—given the increasing share of annual budgets that corrections departments consume—aren’t delivering proportionate returns with regards to public safety.

In 2007, for example, Texas faced an acute problem: its prison population had been growing to the point that billions in long-term spending was going to be necessary to build new facilities to house the state’s offenders.

In light of this reality, the legislature instead decided to invest $241 million over two years towards a wide array of evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism—including drug courts, swift and graduated sanctions for those who break the terms of their release, as well as incentives to encourage faithful participation in their terms of probation.

As a result, Texas’s incarceration rate dropped 10 percent between 2008 and 2013, while its crime rate fell 18 percent—Texas’ lowest such rate since 1968.

Not only has Texas saved $2.1 billion dollars not building new facilities, it's been able to close three prisons since enacting that first round of initiatives.

Such success has proven that conservative principles of criminal justice reform—controlling costs while preserving public safety—is not only possible, but can be a model for the nation.

In light of the Texas model, many other states have followed suit with reform initiatives of their own, including Utah, Mississippi, and Georgia, to name just a few. This groundswell of state-led reforms provides momentum—and a proven foundation—for needed changes at the federal level.

The SAFE Justice Act, a bipartisan bill recently introduced by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc. and Bobby Scott, D-Va. draws on many reforms successful at the state level, seeking to reduce recidivism and foster community-based programs to rehabilitate offenders.

SAFE Justice takes a broad-based approach to criminal justice reform, just like Texas and more than two dozen states that have reformed their systems, tackling “front end” policies like ensuring strict sentences are reserved for the most serious offenders, and “back end” polices like changes to release and supervision procedures. House Speaker John Boehner recently expressed support for the bill, and it has the support of more than 30 co-sponsors.

Legislation has been introduced in the Senate as well, such as the CORRECTIONS Act, which allows certain low-risk offenders to accrue “good time” credit through participation in work programs. These credits allow offenders to spend the final portion of their sentence in prison alternatives, such as home confinement or a halfway houses. Additionally, there is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would address mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent offenses.

I mentioned another issue that merits consideration; one that has already gained significant attention recently at the state level, but as of yet, hasn’t made much leeway federally—civil asset forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture is a practice that came from a desire to make the proceeds of criminal behavior available to law enforcement to combat future criminal behavior. However, in recent years, it has resulted in confiscation of money and other assets from innocent Americans who haven’t even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted.

Legislation has been introduced—the FAIR Act—that would be a good start towards reforming forfeiture practices at the federal level. It requires that there be “clear and convincing” evidence—not just a preponderance thereof—that private property was involved in a crime, and requires seized proceeds to be deposited into the general fund, rather than Department of Justice accounts.

Our Constitution has long guarded Americans’ property rights, and reforming civil forfeiture would go a long way towards strengthening them.

Many other bills have been introduced to reform the federal justice system that deserve their own careful consideration.

We face significant challenges reforming the nation’s sprawling criminal justice system, but fortunately, conservatives have shown in the states that there’s a better way to do business.Let us seize upon this moment to make changes at the federal level, as well.

Marc A. Levin is policy director for Right on Crime and director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.