Bring Successful Conservative Reforms to the Federal Prison System

| AUG 23, 2017 | 8:13 PM

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A prisoner behind bars with hands cuffed

The state-level criminal justice reforms enacted by conservatives in red states that have reduced recidivism rates and increased public safety are finally coming to the federal prison system. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) recently introduced the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, H.R. 3356, which will require federal prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce recidivism rather than spending their time learning to be better criminals.

Over the past decade, there has been a groundswell of reform from Republican states to be smarter on crime. It all started in Texas in 2007 when state House Corrections Committee chairman Jerry Madden (R-Plano) approached then-Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) with concerns about the large chunk of taxpayer funds that were to be spent on prison construction.

“Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick told Madden. “They cost too much.”

Texas has a well-earned reputation for being tough on crime. But, the growth in the state’s prison population came with a heavy cost. Texas needed $523 million in immediate prison construction costs and another $2 billion by 2012. Madden and the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature used $241 million of the money slated to build new prisons and instead used it for programs to reduce prisoners’ recidivism and for drug courts to divert low-level, nonviolent prisoners into treatment programs.

Texas’ reforms worked beyond all expectations. The state’s recidivism rate declined, and corresponded with a decline in crime rates, including violent crime rates. Today, Texas has its lowest crime rate since 1968. What’s more, Texas taxpayers saved the $2 billion in expected prison construction costs and actually closed three prisons.

The Texas experiment paved the way for other Republican states to pursue reforms of their own. In 2011, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia made justice reform a central component of his legislative agenda.

Gov. Deal succinctly summed up the conservative approach to criminal justice in his 2011 State of the State Address: “For violent and repeat offenders, we will make you pay for your crimes. For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with Day Reporting Centers, Drug, DUI and Mental Health Courts and expanded probation and treatment options.”

Georgia’s prison population had more than doubled between 1990 and 2011, reaching nearly 56,000 prisoners and continuing to climb. The Peach State had one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, with recidivism rates hovering around 30 percent and costing taxpayers more than $1 billion per year.

Like Texas before it, Georgia’s 2012 reforms have been extremely successful. The state now assesses risks and needs when offenders enter the justice system, and invested in prison recidivism reduction programs, including education and work training.

According to the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform’s 2016 report, Georgia’s recidivism rate has declined. "Expanded use of accountability courts and other diversionary programming, improved educational and vocational training for offenders currently incarcerated,” the report noted, “and the implementation of the state’s reentry initiative have all contributed to a reduction of Georgia’s recidivism rate from approximately 30 percent in 2009 to 26.4 percent last year.”

Deal was true to his word. Georgia’s violent crime rate has declined, freeing up the state’s prison beds for more dangerous offenders. Today, there are more violent offenders incarcerated than before the reforms. In fact, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections, 67 percent of the prison population is classified as violent, up from 58 percent in 2009.

Rep. Collins was in the Georgia House when it enacted these reforms and he knows how they have changed the culture of corrections in Georgia. So, it is no surprise that he is now a champion for justice reform at the federal level.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act would require that every prisoner in the federal system undergo a risk and needs assessment and participate in programming designed to reduce their risk of committing new crimes. Prisoners would be incentivized to lower their risk of recidivism through time credits for the successful completion of programs.

The key to smart justice reform is targeting offenders with the best chance of not committing new crimes so, of course, there are safeguards in the bill. Some federal prisoners — including violent offenders, drug offenders who were in possession of a firearm, and sex offenders — are not eligible for time credits.

There is much that can and should be done to address federal criminal justice policies from a conservative perspective, and the Prison Reform and Redemption Act is a great first step. This bill would reduce recidivism and enhance public safety by incentivizing good behavior and freeing up limited law enforcement resources to go after violent criminals and to keep them in prison. That is what smart, conservative justice reform looks like.

Patrick Purtill is the Director of Legislative Affairs of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Jason Pye is the vice president of legislative affairs of FreedomWorks.

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