Criminal Justice

We must pass the Reverse Incarceration Act if we want prison reform

A lot of people don't realize that a big reason why the United States is the global leader in mass incarceration - with a tragic 2.2 million of our citizens currently behind bars - is the direct result of misguided, decades-old tough-on-crime policies, which were supposed to keep us safer and failed miserably.

Chief among those bad policies was the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave states $12.5 billion in grants for prison construction if they adopted "truth-in-sentencing" laws that required people to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

That bill was such a success that for a period in the 1990s a new prison opened every 15 days on average - and thus was born the prison industrial complex that haunts us through today.

As a reluctant participant in that complex during its 90s heyday - when I spent six years in jail and prison - and a criminal justice reform advocate ever since, I am happy to report that we have made great strides since then, including a reform movement that counts both Democrats and Republicans as leading members. But what we haven't had is a direct rebuttal from the federal government for its role in this country's incarceration crisis - until now.

On Wednesday, I proudly stood alongside U.S Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) as he introduced what's being called the Reverse Mass Incarceration Bill, which will encourage the kind of federal-state partnerships to turn the big ship of mass incarceration around.

That bill will reward states with federal incentive grants of $20 billion over 10 years for reducing their prison population by at least seven percent over a three-year period, while at the same time making sure their crime rate doesn't increase by more than three percent.

It's basically the opposite of the 1994 Crime Bill, and shows just how far we've come in our thinking about incarceration. True, we have a president in the White House who I believe, refuses to acknowledge this shift in our cultural landscape, as well as a U.S. Attorney General who also fans the flames of hysteria when it comes to crime. But President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are increasingly alone in their thinking.

The desire to fix the mass incarceration crisis in this country - which until recently a problem most people refused to recognize - has finally achieved mainstream status. Don't take my word for it. An ACLU poll of Democrats and Republican voters found 69 percent agree that it is important for the country to reduce its prison population.

Equally telling, the first ever national survey of victims of crime found that even those victimized say they would prefer the system focusing on rehabilitation over punishment by a 2 to 1 margin.

I've seen it personally as well. As a leader of the nonprofit JustLeadershipUSA, which I founded to try and empower men and women who have been incarcerated, I have seen a marked change in public sentiment as I speak with diverse audiences across the country, including law enforcement officials.

The reasons for their support vary, and include the high costs and low success rate of locking people away, but the receptiveness is the same. Everyone knows what we were doing wasn't working, and is looking for better solutions.

As Congress mulls the Reverse Incarceration Act, they should know that states are already leading the way. Mississippi reduced its prison population by 13 percent between 2011 and 2014 by expanding credit for time served and loosening some of the parole requirements.

During that period the crime rate also went down. Connecticut has reduced its prison population by more than 20 percent since 2011 through a series of reforms and crime in that state is at its lowest point since 1967.

It's now time for our elected officials in D.C. to step up. Voters are ready, and it is their job to act - starting with quick passage of the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate in June, so there is no excuse for delays. You can't change the past, but you can take bold steps to affect the future. That's what we expect from our elected officials.

Glenn E. Martin is the president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030.

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