Untying the Knot of Incarceration, Part 2

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Federal Policy:  Where we are, and ways forward
This is the second in a two-part series on incarceration and its impact.

As national arguments continue over the cost of government at all levels, one area where reform could mean tens of billions of dollars in savings is not receiving a great deal of attention: incarceration.  Proven practices show that shuffling the tools we utilize in our criminal justice system can achieve more efficient and effective public safety, more productive citizens, and safer neighborhoods.  What stands in our way are years of politics and volumes of policy at all levels of government.  This post explores how the federal government is working with localities to implement common-sense reforms, as well as Senator Jim Webb’s (D-VA) efforts to implement a comprehensive review of our nation’s criminal justice system by passing the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S. 306).

As discussed in the first blog post on this topic, while incarceration will always be part of our crime fighting formula, it fails at creating lasting change.  Two-thirds of those released from prisons were rearrested within 3 years, meaning the vast majority of those that are leaving incarceration are likely to recommit.  With the yearly cost to lock someone up more than sending someone to college, it is also one of the most expensive criminal justice tools—and one we are very quick to utilize.

It surprises most people to hear that the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Although our country has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we house a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  Despite crime taking a consistently downward trend since the early 1990s, incarceration continues to rise dramatically.  Today, our jail and prison population stands at about 240 percent of what it was in 1980.

We know it is far less costly for everyone if we can stop a crime before it happens: prisons, police, taxpayers, and even apprehended criminals save time and money.  That is why preventing crime rather than simply responding to it has become the hallmark of modern community policing techniques.  This methodology has become increasingly possible through utilizing data to anticipate and prevent crime, as well as new methods for identifying those at-risk of offending (or re-offending) and providing a new path forward.

After the jump: where we are going, federal support for local programs, and why Senator Webb’s fight to create a common path forward is so important.

Substantial evidence points to the need for reform, and has provided political backing to make significant changes to our criminal justice system.  State and local government groups, deficit hawks, law enforcement, and many leading Christian conservative voices have joined with criminal justice reform organizations.  With this diverse coalition of support, the federal government began to take note.  A watershed moment was the Second Chance Act (PL 110-99).  A bipartisan bill supported and signed by President George W. Bush, the law provides funding to government agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, victims support, and other services as a means to reduce recidivism.

The passage of the Second Chance Act marked a new direction for criminal justice, and the current Administration has continued down that path.  Attorney General Eric Holder instituted an interagency council for prisoner re-entry with 18 departments and agencies collaborating on the problem. The Attorney General and others have also been able to create programs that can be utilized to help prevent at-risk youth from becoming another incarceration statistic, and diverting minor offenders away from jail and into programs that put them on the right path.  These include Drug and Mental Health Court programs, juvenile prevention and diversion programs, as well as a wealth of programs that provide direct funding for or are eligible for use on ex-offender reentry services.

These programs provide resources to tackle the issue of reentry at the local level, but still fail to take a comprehensive approach to the problem.  That is why Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has been championing the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S. 306).  Senator Webb’s bill would create a bipartisan, blue-ribbon Congressional Commission tasked with reviewing our criminal justice system from top-to-bottom and making recommendations for improvements at all levels of government, without mandating change on state and local governments.  The Senator has brought together a striking group of supporters:  state and local government groups such as the National League of Cities, public safety organizations such as the National Sheriffs Association and Fraternal Order of Police, a diverse range of religious groups, and organizations interested in criminal justice reform ranging from the NAACP to the American Bar Association.

The goal of the commission is to begin the process of untangling the complex web of political and policy steps over the past half century that is so complex and involved that criminologists, historians, and academics dedicate their entire lives to its study.  Never has there been so much agreement that we need a new path forward for criminal justice – all that is needed is a common document that provides the roadmap.  With the potential to reduce the billions spent on incarceration by all levels of government each year, the relatively small cost to create a Congressional commission would be a very valuable investment.

Elected leaders at all levels are often deterred from investigating a political and policy problem as large as incarceration.  However, the benefits to cities and our nation—safer communities, reducing public safety costs, and boosting the outcomes in individual lives—are numerous and ultimately in the best interest of the country.  That is why NLC supported the Second Chance Act, and is now supporting Senator Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act.