Justice for criminals

The Washington PostFebruary 4, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Jan 29 Washington Post:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, R, said last week that he favors decriminalizing marijuana in his state, which used to define law-and-order politics. In fact, Texas hasn’t been living up to its lock-'em-up reputation for a while now; it is one of many states that has been looking for safe ways to reduce the number of people behind bars – saving money and wasted lives.

The nation is seeing a swing back from the excesses of the end of the last century, when seemingly every major politician had to propose harsh anti-crime policies to be taken seriously. The swing is to the good. With crime rates down, leaders should take the political opportunity to reform the system – while not swinging too far in the other direction. The trick is to preserve public safety but eliminate the unnecessary costs and illogically punitive penalties that came with the get-tough approach.

In the Lone Star State, the effort has conservative roots. Budget-minded state leaders crafted an alternative to perpetually feeding money into prison construction to warehouse non-violent offenders, rather than investing in drug treatment or better parole programs. The state offered more power to specialized drug courts, for example. It revamped parole to swiftly punish violations without automatically sending people back to jail for long terms. Texas also made it easier for former prisoners to reintegrate into society after release by making it less likely their employers would know about or act on their criminal records. Justice reform programs come with strict requirements, such as looking for a job and paying child support.

Texas is hardly alone. A report from the Urban Institute examines the early experience of 17 states now participating in a criminal justice reform initiative that invests savings from reducing prison populations into programs to decrease first-time incarceration and recidivism. Sponsored by the Justice Department, the program includes better drug treatment programs and post-release services. Policymakers have geared parole monitoring toward mending behavior with graduated punishments that increase in severity with continued non-compliance. The 17 states project savings of as much as $4.6 billion over the next several years. The reductions in human suffering are incalculable.

Not every pleasant-sounding reform will work. Many criminals deserve to be locked up, and that is expensive. Locking up criminals has been part of the explanation for lower crime rates. But that can’t justify mass incarceration. As states conducting reforms gain experience, others should follow their lead.

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