Politics & Policy

Congress Should Follow the Red States’ Lead on Criminal-Justice Reform

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Nearly ten years ago, in 2007, Texas faced $527 million in immediate prison-construction costs, and $2 billion in additional costs by 2012. Even for a large and wealthy state, the sticker shock was staggering.

Texas had seen its prison population rise dramatically. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of inmates jumped from around 50,000 to more than 155,000 — incarcerating so many inmates began to crowd out other vital areas of the budget.

Texas House Corrections Committee chairman Jerry Madden approached House speaker Tom Craddick and asked what he should do to address the rising costs. “Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick said. “They cost too much.”

Madden, a Republican, got to work and, along with his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, devised a plan to tackle the state’s growing prison population. With an investment of $241 million, lawmakers created drug courts to divert low-level, nonviolent offenders into treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration and funded rehabilitation programs to reduce prisoners’ risk of recidivism when they reentered society.

The results of the Texas model are difficult to ignore: The state’s prison population declined by 14 percent and, even more importantly, crime rates dropped by 29 percent.

RELATED: Criminal-Justice Reform Is a Conservative Cause

One might argue that crime rates were dropping all over the country at the time — which is true — but if one were to listen to those in rabid opposition to justice reform, wouldn’t the reverse have happened? Instead, Texas now has its lowest crime rate since 1968 and recidivism is 9 percent less than before Texas’s 2007 reforms.

The results were so encouraging that other states sought to replicate Texas’s success. Most of the states that have moved on substantive justice reform are traditionally conservative ones. More than two dozen states — including Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina — have passed justice-reform packages.

RELATED: Texas Shows How to Reduce Both Incarceration and Crime

Interestingly, it wasn’t until multiple Republican-controlled states moved on the issue that traditionally blue states felt that they could: They all waited for red states to move first. Hawaii, Oregon, and Rhode Island, three of the most progressive states in the country, followed the lead of conservative states. Since then, even more red states — including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Utah — have passed justice reform.

Red states, and Texas in particular, provided a blueprint for other states to follow while Barack Obama was still the junior senator from Illinois. In fact, today, a Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, is spearheading long overdue justice reform in the Land of Lincoln.

#share#Now is the time to bring these conservative reforms to the federal level. The federal prison population grew by nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, and the Bureau of Prisons’ budget increased by almost 600 percent, from $970 million to $6.7 billion.

Opponents of justice reform point to the high recidivism rate of federal prisoners as one of the reasons Congress shouldn’t act, but this is exactly why we, like so many conservative states, should act to get smarter on crime.

RELATED: The High Cost of Over-Incarceration

Moreover, there is also another angle that congressional Republicans may not have considered: There are no guarantees this fall. Conservatives could be facing four or eight more years of a Democrat in the White House, Democratic control of the Senate, and, quite possibly, the House could swing back to left-wing control.

While there is more bipartisanship on criminal justice than any other issue, conservatives understand we cannot reduce the prison population without also strengthening alternatives like probation and drug courts. So, for example, there should be swift and certain sanctions — such as a weekend in jail — when someone blows off their probation officer. Some on the far left simply don’t recognize the “stick” part of the carrot-and-stick approach and want to divert savings on prisons to welfare programs rather than following Texas’s proven record by reinvesting the savings in supervision strategies that can help continue crime declines.

RELATED: The Truth About Mass Incarceration

It’s time for congressional conservatives to reclaim the narrative that’s rightfully theirs. Justice reform is our issue. They would never admit it, but Democrats are following conservatives’ lead.

The House Judiciary Committee has already approved the Sentencing Reform Act and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act, bills backed by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and Representative Raul Labrador (R., Idaho). The Senate Judiciary Committee has moved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, introduced by Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Senators John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Mike Lee (R., Utah). Conservatives should support these measures that would further the efforts of red states and bring justice reform to the federal level.

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