Scott and Rigell: Making America safer through reform

September 20, 2015
In The News

Bipartisanship is elusive in Washington, especially with an upcoming presidential election. But the widespread consensus behind efforts to fix our nation's broken and costly criminal justice system proves that common ground does exist.

Republicans and Democrats can agree that the driving force behind fixing our criminal justice system should be an approach that delivers the most public safety at the lowest taxpayer cost.

Along with many of our colleagues, we have been working to pass the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act. The SAFE Justice Act would implement targeted reforms to the federal sentencing and corrections system, drawing on research and empirical evidence about what truly works to change criminal behavior, protect public safety and control costs.

The data show that the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons jumped nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2013.

With this exponential growth, federal prison spending has ballooned. Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 - $6.7 billion, adjusted for inflation - as they spent on the entire Justice Department in 1980.

Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar that cannot be spent by the Justice Department on the FBI, DEA, national security, crime prevention, investigation, prosecution or victims services.

This wouldn't be so troubling if the money had been effective at reducing crime. But we are spending more and receiving less in terms of public safety. Recent studies show that one in every three offenders who leaves the federal prison under community supervision will return to custody for violating terms of their release or for committing a new crime.

But thanks to research and the experience of more than 30 states that have enacted reforms in recent years, we know how to reduce crime and save money.

We've learned, for instance, that the long mandatory minimum sentences adopted by the states and Congress in the 1980s and 1990s did not have a strong deterrent effect, especially for the drug offenders who make up half the federal prison population.

Research has taught us that adding more years to a prison term - eight years instead of five, for example - doesn't buy you less crime. The states' experiences prove that it is not the length of the sentence that deters crime, but rather the certainty of being caught.

We've also discovered that for many lower-level offenders, prison is not the most effective punishment. Community supervision and mandatory programs tailored for risk level and need, such as mental health care or drug treatment, are often more effective because they address the underlying issues that cause someone to re-offend.

That's not only a less expensive approach, it's also a smarter and safer one.

The states understand this calculus and have reshaped their correctional systems. Beginning with Texas in 2007, states have enacted data-driven reforms that concentrate expensive prison space on chronic and violent offenders, while strengthening probation, court programs and other alternatives proven to reduce re-offending.

A recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts reveals the wisdom of this approach. Between 2008 and 2013, 32 states reduced both their imprisonment and crime rates. In fact, the 10 states with the largest incarceration decreases saw crime fall by an average of 13 percent, while the 10 states with the largest increases in imprisonment reduced crime by an average of 8 percent.

So what does all this mean as we confront the need for federal prison reform?

To us, it's clear. The federal government should follow the states' lead and enact smart changes that put serious offenders in prison and sanction others through effective alternatives.

The SAFE Justice Act reflects this balanced approach, restoring rationality to our federal criminal justice system. Its passage will invest in crime prevention, reduce overreach in the federal criminal code, improve policing, reform sentencing, improve rehabilitation in our prisons, and reform our federal criminal justice system into one that is safe, accountable, fair, and effective.

Momentum is on the side of meaningful reform. The SAFE Justice Act has garnered more than 40 cosponsors, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, because it follows the states' lead in reducing crime and saving money.

It has also attracted endorsements from groups across the political spectrum, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Right on Crime, Koch Industries, FreedomWorks, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Police Foundation, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

It's a rare but much needed example of sound, bipartisan legislation. We hope our colleagues in Congress will see beyond our partisan affiliations and join the growing consensus behind passing this urgently needed bill.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat, represents the 3rd District. U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, a Republican, represents the 2nd.