Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, who comes before the Senate for confirmation this week, has often been skeptical of efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
He stood opposed to a growing bipartisan coalition in Congress—one that spanned the ideological spectrum—that sought to expand rehabilitative programming in federal prisons and restore proportional sentences for drug crimes.
While everyone was aiming for public safety, skeptics, including Sen. Sessions, questioned whether the proposed reforms would get us there, ultimately scuttling a legislative consensus.
Sen. Sessions’ skepticism is not inherently bad. Just as “tough on crime” legislation was in vogue a generation ago, criminal justice reform is now in the vanguard, but not all reforms are created equal.
It is imperative that legislators and policymakers undertake criminal justice reform thoughtfully, prioritizing those reforms proven to improve public safety.
Fortunately for all of us, we can both protect the public and reform our nation’s broken prison system at the same time. Many states, including those that helped carry President-elect Trump to victory, have shown us how.
Now Sen. Sessions has a chance to apply their best principles and practices in his leadership of the federal justice system.
The number one job of the criminal justice system—all the way from the local level to the federal—is to keep the public safe. Properly applied, criminal justice reform helps us meet that goal.
Prison is meant, at least in part, to deter people from engaging in criminal behaviors. One might think that “worse” prisons are more effective deterrents, but the opposite has turned out to be true.
When prisons are overcrowded and violent, when prisoners lack access to educational or rehabilitative programs, and when sentences are unduly long, the justice system becomes a revolving door.
Nationwide, approximately two-thirds of the 600,000 prisoners released in 2017 will be arrested again within three years. That’s a systemic failure to protect Americans from becoming victims of crime.
Conversely, the smart criminal justice reforms that stalled in Congress this past session included reforms with demonstrated efficacy in improving public safety in the states and local governments where they were first implemented.
Texas, despite its lock-em-up reputation, has used a variety of criminal justice reforms, including diversionary drug courts and parole reform. In the process, it has reduced its behind-bars head count enough to shutter three entire prisons.
Thanks to its reforms, Texas shrank its prison population 10 percent between 2008 and 2013, more than twice the average national reduction, while simultaneously cutting its crime rate. And it wasn’t just in Texas; according to the Pew Center on the States, the 10 states that cut their prison population the most had a 13 percent average reduction in their crime rates (states that increased their incarceration rate still enjoyed the benefits of a national drop in crime, but their crime rates fell less). While the federal system has a unique population and policies, public safety lessons learned at the state level, like the importance of proportional sentencing and risk assessment tools for assigning individuals to the best rehabilitative programs, can and should be applied at the federal level.
The budget of the Federal Bureau of Prisons is nearly $8 billion. Where incarceration is necessary to achieve justice, our taxpayer money is spent wastefully when it warehouses prisoners instead of rehabilitating them.
A better prison system would give men and women behind bars opportunities to take responsibility for their crimes, make amends, and learn to live differently.
It is to the public’s advantage to use proven, safe, and effective alternatives to incarceration. Diversionary sentencing and incarceration programs have been adopted in more than 27 states. These alternative programs keep people connected to their communities and out of expensive prison cells. And effective in-prison programs, designed to address well-researched criminogenic factors, help make sure those who are released return to the community as productive, law-abiding citizens.
Sen. Sessions has often repeated the adage, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” And he is right—in a society built on law and order, those who commit crimes must expect to be held accountable. But that accountability must uphold human dignity by staying in due proportion to the harm done, and it must not ultimately cause even greater harm to the community.
We know what happens when we lock people up in a system that does not rehabilitate them, and the costs to society—both human and financial—are far too high for us to continue to bear.
Now, thanks to the pioneering work of many states, we know how we can protect the public while building a criminal justice system reflective of our deepest national values.
Prison Fellowship urges Sen. Sessions to advance federal criminal justice reforms that embody those values – proportion, accountability, and restoration—should he become our next attorney general.
Craig DeRoche is the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. He is the former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and a recovering alcoholic.