Scott Op-Ed: It's time for criminal justice reform

September 6, 2015
In The News

For far too long, politicians across the nation have chosen to play politics with crime policy by enacting so-called “tough on crime” slogans such as “three strikes and you’re out” or rhymes like “you do the adult crime, you do the adult time.” As appealing as these soundbites may be, they have done nothing to reduce crime — but they have overloaded our prisons.

Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that between 1980 and 2013 our federal prison population skyrocketed from 24,000 to 215,000. The United States now has around 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. It has gotten to the point that some recent studies have concluded that our level of over-incarceration is actually counterproductive, meaning that it destroys so many families, creates so many people with felony records and wastes so much taxpayer money that it generates more crime than it stops.

The driving force behind our crime policy should be an approach that delivers the most public safety at the lowest taxpayer cost. That’s a goal that all of us — Republican and Democrat — can and should support.

Reforms implemented by the states over the past decade prove that we can reduce crime and save money. More than 30 states have reduced both their crime and imprisonment rates by adopting wide-ranging, evidence-based reforms that protect public safety, while reining in prison costs. Their successful formula focuses expensive prison space on violent and career criminals, while strengthening community supervision and alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders.

Over an 18-month period, I co-chaired the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Our task force reviewed the federal criminal code, researched the contributors to the nation’s mass incarceration problem and made recommendations for improvements with input from key stakeholders, academics and expert organizations.

Based on the task force’s work, Sensenbrenner and I introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Reinvestment Act in June. Our bill tackles the major drivers of the federal prison population at the front and back ends and resolves underlying systemic issues.

Our bill encourages community leaders to identify a community’s needs with regard to youth and gang violence prevention and to develop a plan to redirect young people from what the Children’s Defense Fund calls the “Cradle to Prison” pipeline into a “Cradle to College and Career” pipeline, so that many of our youth never get into trouble to begin with. The bill also includes funding for community-based policing, de-escalation and mental health training, body cameras and to eliminate the DNA analysis backlog.

For those who are arrested, our bill includes reforms to pretrial detention to decrease unnecessary disruption to housing, employment and community ties. Then, once the youth comes to court, our bill creates drug, mental health, substance abuse, and veterans court programs to divert non-violent, low-level, first-time federal offenders from prison. Providing these offenders the help they require in addressing the underlying issues that led them to violate the law improves outcomes, reduces recidivism and saves money.

Our bill also reforms federal drug mandatory minimum sentences, by narrowing their application to the leaders and kingpins for whom they were originally intended, not the lowest-level, nonviolent offenders who have been receiving them.

Once an individual is sentenced to prison, our bill incentivizes inmates to complete educational, vocational, substance abuse, mental health and transitional programs to improve the chances of a successful transition back into the community.

We hold halfway houses accountable by measuring the recidivism rates of those housed there after prison. The bill also avoids unnecessary incarceration for nonviolent technical parole violations, which can disrupt any re-entry progress toward securing employment and housing.

The billions that will be saved from reductions in incarceration will be reinvested to pay for the provisions of the bill that require funding.

States have shown that these reforms work and Congress can write a similar success story on a national scale. The SAFE Justice Act has garnered 40 bipartisan cosponsors, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, because it reduces crime and saves 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, Freedom Works, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Police Foundation, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Passage of the SAFE Justice Act will invest in crime prevention, reduce overreach in the federal criminal code, improve policing, reform sentencing, improve rehabilitation in our prisons and will reform our federal criminal justice system into one that is safe, accountable, fair and effective. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix our broken criminal justice system. I hope Congress will not squander it.

Bobby Scott represents Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House. To contact him, please visit