Congress must act to fix our broken criminal justice system
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Our criminal justice system is crumbling. Over the last 40 years, our domestic incarceration rate has quadrupled, creating a crisis of more than 2 million people behind bars in the United States today. Simultaneously, recidivism rates have grown or remained high across almost every identifiable demographic or cross section. And yet, crime rates have steadily fallen.

This paradox exposes a simple fact: our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform. What’s more, almost everyone in Congress knows it. Passing significant reforms to our criminal justice system could bring relief to families and communities in every state, district and territory.

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Over the past few weeks, at our respective retreats, members of Congress from both parties discussed our priorities. We believe criminal justice reform needs to be on the top of that list.

Since arriving in Congress, we have seen increasing awareness, education, energy and interest in criminal justice reform, but, to date, we have not been able to enact necessary changes. Senators have formed working groups. The House Judiciary Committee passed strong, bipartisan legislation out of committee last year. But no tangible results. That has to change.

Together, we are calling on congressional leadership – of both parties – to dedicate the resources and afford this issue the national attention it deserves. As Dr. King taught us, the time is always right to do what is right.

While there will undoubtedly be policy disagreements and grandstanding from those vested in the status quo or more interested in their immediate political future than the welfare of their constituents, the reality is inescapable. 

Incarceration statistics paint a grim picture of the nightmare millions face: 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have an incarcerated parent; there are more jails than colleges in the United States; non-violent drug offenses account for almost half of the total population in federal prisons; and taxpayers spend more than $70 billion each year to incarcerate 1 in 100 American adults. Even worse, these wasted dollars make us all less safe. We have the opportunity to restore families and help people find redemption instead of condemnation.

Like a house in decay from decades of neglect, our criminal justice system requires repair. We have tried small fixes, but our piecemeal approach has not been enough.

While legislation will not solve all these problems, it could make a meaningful dent. Passing criminal justice reform legislation stands to make an immediate impact on millions of Americans – restoring families, rebuilding lives and revitalizing communities.

Our conversations about criminal justice reform should reach beyond crime and punishment. We have to focus on restoration and rehabilitation. We have to rebuild the relationships between police and the communities they serve. Children should not bear the consequences of the actions of their mothers and fathers, nor should we leave them trapped in a cycle of crime and poverty. Moreover, crime should have a cost, but, once paid, society should help lay a path to success for those who have paid their debt.

We have seen the rising opioid epidemic correctly identified as a public health crisis. Congress has the opportunity to respond differently now than it did to the crack epidemic that wrecked black communities in the ’80s and made our criminal justice system what it is today. Congress has a responsibility to take action when we see a threat to any of our communities. Our current criminal justice system is a threat to all communities because it shackles people to a life of struggle while making us all less safe.

We must take a holistic approach to reform. From prevention to rehabilitation, Congress has the unique opportunity to address each aspect of our broken system.

Teaching marketable job skills, treating mental health needs and substance abuse, providing educational opportunities, building social and team skills, and strengthening our halfway houses are all demonstrable ways of reducing recidivism and personal patterns of crime.  Something as simple as helping inmates get a government ID card prior to release can have a positive impact on a person’s post-incarceration potential.

There is a broad coalition, both on and off the Hill, supporting bipartisan action. Congress should act and we are ready to help lead the way.

This is the right time to move the discussion on criminal justice reform forward and rebuild our broken system.

Richmond represents the 2nd District of Louisiana, which includes parts of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He is also the chair of the 48-member, bicameral, bipartisan Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Follow him on Twitter at @RepRichmond. Follow the CBC on Twitter at @OfficialCBC. Walker represents the 6th District of North Carolina. He is chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) and was a vocational minister for 16 years before being elected to Congress in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RepMarkWalker.