July was the biggest month for prison reform in more than 20 years. President Barack Obama devoted three days to the issue, commuting the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders, addressing the NAACP on his vision for the criminal justice system, and becoming the first sitting chief executive to visit a federal correctional facility. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said at a news conference that he wants to see the ambitious and bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act on the floor of the House of Representatives. Even former President Bill Clinton got involved, extending his previous mea culpa for provisions in the 1994 crime bill that boosted federal penalties and encouraged states to do the same. The nation’s corrections system hasn’t taken center stage like this since the signing of that landmark legislation.
The federal focus on prison policy comes none too soon. As a recent Pew fact sheet highlighted, the number of federal inmates shot up from about 24,000 in 1980 to more than 215,000 in 2013. Over the same period, the cost of the system jumped nearly 600 percent as the federal Bureau of Prisons swelled from a tiny sliver of the Justice Department budget to nearly a quarter of the pie, crowding out funds for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, federal prosecutors, and other law enforcement priorities. But despite all of the spending, public safety returns were weak: The increase in incarceration was not the reason for the bulk of the crime drop since the early 1990s; at most it accounted for a quarter, with other factors, such as better policing and waning demand for crack cocaine, responsible for the rest.
The good news is that the federal government can look to the states for solutions. After Texas took the first step in 2007, states as diverse as Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Oregon have adopted comprehensive reforms that are reining in the size and cost of their corrections systems while making communities safer. Many of the states have taken a “justice reinvestment” approach, drawing on research into effective practices as well as data about their own systems to craft policies that prioritize prison space for serious, violent offenders and use the savings to strengthen alternatives for lower-level offenders.
One state that has recently shifted gears on sentencing and corrections policy is Utah, where Governor Gary Herbert (R) signed a sweeping reform package in March. The legislation converts all first- and second-time drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors; establishes guidelines to ensure swift, certain, and commensurate responses to probation and parole violations; and creates “re-entry specialists” to support offenders as they exit prison and return to the community. The package is expected to avert nearly all of the state’s projected prison growth and save $500 million over the next 20 years while reducing recidivism and protecting public safety.
The results from these state efforts are compelling. Nationally, crime and incarceration rates have been falling for five years. The overall incarceration rate has steadily receded to 1 in 110 adults from its peak of 1 in 100 in 2007. And the crime rate fell by 13 percent in the 10 states that reduced their imprisonment rates the most, while it dropped just 8 percent in the 10 states where the imprisonment rate rose the most. Several states that have adopted evidence-based reforms also are beginning to experience reductions in recidivism, dispelling the myth that the paths of offenders’ lives cannot be altered.
Success in the states has put pressure on the federal government to improve its own system. In late June, the House weighed in with the introduction of the SAFE Justice Act by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill is systemic and wide-ranging: It would target federal prison space to serious offenders, reduce recidivism through enhanced community supervision, and increase transparency and accountability throughout the system. The veteran leader of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Julie Stewart, called SAFE Justice the best piece of legislation she has seen in 20 years, and the bill has been endorsed across the political spectrum, from Koch Industries to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Bipartisan momentum is also building in the Senate, where John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), as well as Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT), have been pushing reform bills for the past couple of years. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has indicated that he; Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the committee’s ranking member; and other leaders may come to an agreement before the August recess.
Nationwide, American voters are solidly behind more sensible and fiscally sound corrections policy. Opinion surveys consistently find that about three-quarters of likely voters believe it is possible to have safer streets and fewer inmates. They approve of the idea of alternative strategies for lower-level offenders in general, and of specific policies, such as shortening prison terms for inmates who are low risk, complete programming, or have behaved well behind bars.
It has been two decades since sentencing and corrections issues have risen to the top of the national conversation. With strong public backing, clear evidence from the states that crime and incarceration can fall together, and the attention of the nation’s top leaders, there is no better time than now for Congress to act.