This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on October 12, 2015.
By Terri Burke and Greg Glod
At a time when the partisan and ideological divides have rarely been more stark, it’s a welcome respite when left and right can find common ground. Criminal-justice reform is one area where both sides can work together.
Philosophically and politically, we don’t agree on much else — but we agree on the need to reduce jail and prison populations, increase public safety, cut the spiraling cost of incarceration, reduce recidivism rates and remove barriers for those re-entering society to find gainful employment and lead productive lives.
The need to reduce recidivism was underscored dramatically in a report released Sept. 25 by the Justice Department on a study that found that more than three of every four ex-offenders — or 77 percent — are rearrested within five years. Something clearly needs to be done to slow the revolving prison doors.
At a panel in Austin last week sponsored by the bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety, representatives from organizations on the right and left — the ACLU and Right on Crime among them — lent support to a national campaign advocating for “Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances,” comprising those and other reforms to the criminal justice system.
The coalition hosted the panel in Texas because the Lone Star State serves as a model for other states across the country and for the federal government.
Faced with skyrocketing state expenditures — nearly $3 billion a year on prison and parole — Texas in 2007 fundamentally changed course on criminal justice under then-Gov. Rick Perry.
Reforms included changing the way the state deals with first-time, nonviolent and “low-level” drug offenders, diverting them from prison to treatment programs, and altering the approach to parole and probation, focusing resources on treatment and rehabilitation programs. Those reforms in turn have reduced recidivism and made it easier for ex-offenders to re-enter society, while also saving the state $2 billion and reducing the state’s crime rate to its lowest point since 1968.
In Washington, where the partisan sniping is even more intense than in the state capitals, members of Congress would do well to look to the Texas model for guidance in reforming the federal prison system. Incidentally, Washington may be taking notice. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa recently announced efforts to bring about bipartisan reform in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a positive sign and a move in the right direction.
Both parties should be able to agree that we’re putting far too many people behind bars — and for far too long. That’s a result in no small part of misguided mandatory-minimum sentencing laws that might have seemed like a good idea when they were enacted, but which have limited authorities’ ability to mete out sentences commensurate with the crime, particularly with regard to nonviolent drug offenses.
Clearly, something needs to be done when the federal prison population has increased nearly tenfold since 1980, and the state-prison populations have quadrupled. More than 1 percent of all U.S. adults are now behind bars, giving the U.S. the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Moreover, our system costs state and federal taxpayers a whopping $80 billion a year. Even for big-spending politicians, that’s more than a rounding error.
We may not agree on everything, but we are in full agreement that the need for reforms to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more humane — while at the same time saving taxpayers’ dollars — is too pressing to be left on the legislative back burner any longer.
Burke is executive director of the ACLU of Texas. Glod is a policy analyst for the Austin-based Right on Crime and for the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.