This commentary originally appeared in the Tyler Morning Telegraph on October 22, 2015.
In the past few weeks, both the U.S. House and the Senate introduced broad criminal justice reform packages aimed at reducing sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders and increasing the chances of successful reentry after these individuals leave their prison beds.
Both pieces of legislation have received a wide array of support across the political spectrum. From the Koch Brothers to the NAACP and nearly everyone in between, it is well accepted that a system that currently incarcerates 1.5 million of its citizens is overdue for a makeover.
However, some prosecutor and law enforcement organizations have sounded the alarm against any change to the corrections system. So long as reforms improve public safety, these groups should consider supporting proven policy initiatives.
The states have shown us that these tornado sirens are misguided and it’s safe for Congress to come outside and strike a deal. For nearly a decade, states like Texas have proven that we can increase public safety and reduce significant correction costs by investing in alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders.
Groups like the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys and individuals such as Bill Otis, former appellate attorney for the Justice Department and White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush, have warned Congress that reform policies, such as lessening sentences for certain non-violent offenders and reducing various mandatory minimums, will cause more criminals to be on the streets, thus increasing crime rates.
They remind our legislatures that crime is at decade lows, which they attribute to massive incarceration polices enacted in the mid-’80s to early ’90s.
However, the data coming out of the states paints a very different picture. For example, Texas faced a fork in the road in 2007. In the interim leading up to the 80th Legislative session, the Legislative Budget Board estimated that Texas would have to spend an extra $2.1 billion over five years in prison construction to house an anticipated 17,000 additional inmates over the same time period.
Instead, the Texas Legislature invested $241 million in programs that increased capacity in treatment programs within prison and expanded diversion options, including drug courts and treatment designed for nonviolent offenders with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues.
The results have been nothing short of miraculous. Since 2007, not only did Texas avoid additional prison construction, the state has closed three lockups. Crime and incarceration rates are at their lowest since the 60s and billions have been saved.
Building on the success of 2007, Texas has continued to be on the forefront of criminal justice reform. Legislation requiring corrections and probation departments to utilize best practices to maximize successful reentry for offenders has reduced recidivism, saved taxpayer dollars and kept families together.
Texas has also provided incentives for offenders and ex-offenders to learn from their mistakes, take personal responsibility for their actions and become law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. For instance, Texas recently enacted legislation that allows first-time offenders who have committed a low-level misdemeanor to petition the court to have their record sealed from the general public if a judge signs off on the petition, based in part on the good behavior of the person since the violation. This will allow for thousands of Texans to move beyond their one transgression and successfully reenter the workforce.
Being tough on crime does not mean ignoring the statistics, it means using data to get the best outcomes for the public.
It is time for the federal government to emulate the success seen in states such as Texas rather than succumbing to fact-free fears.
Greg Glod is a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.