Republicans and Democrats don’t always see eye to eye, but there is clear common ground when it comes to the need for criminal justice reform.
For too long, when it comes to public safety and criminal justice, we have attributed success to the number of people we place behind bars. While this approach has not necessarily made our neighborhoods and communities safer, it has led to an explosion in both the prison population and associated costs. Research shows that we have crossed a point of diminishing returns, where new prison cells have caused a reduction in public safety. For many low-risk, non-violent offenders, incarceration actually increases the likelihood of re-offending upon their release. The current policy has led to families being torn apart, state and federal budgets being stretched thin, and a generation of able-bodied and potentially productive citizens being lost in the system.
Locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible is neither the most effective means of ensuring public safety nor a fiscally responsible strategy. Our criminal justice system has shifted its focus from one that metes out rational punishment to those who threaten public safety, to one that seeks to criminalize every offense. The federal government has added over 2,000 federal offenses in the past 25 years alone. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal imprisonment rate jumped 518%. During the same period, prison spending rose 595 percent. Taxpayers now spend nearly as much on federal prisons as they spent on the entire Justice Department in 1980 – a whopping $6.9 billion. Justice has no price tag, but emptying our wallets to incarcerate for the sake of incarceration is a disservice to the American taxpayer and society at large.
Paying these rising prison costs means shortchanging other public safety priorities, like funding federal prosecutors and public defenders. In 1980, the Bureau of Prisons consumed just 14 percent of the Justice Department budget. Since then, that proportion has nearly doubled, to 23 percent, and that number continues to rise. Unless we address this issue, continued growth in prison spending will further erode support for law enforcement, state and local justice grants, and services aimed at minimizing recidivism rates.
Fortunately, the need for reform has been widely recognized across the country. Since 2007, two dozen states – from Georgia and South Carolina to California and Oregon– have adopted comprehensive, evidence-driven reforms that protect public safety while holding offenders accountable and reigning in prison costs. Their successful formulas focus limited prison space on violent and repeat offenders while strengthening alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders. The result has been a decrease in both crime and incarceration rates. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as research has shown that simply tacking on years in prison does not lead to increased public safety.
We believe Congress can take the lessons learned at the state level and write a similar success story on a national scale. That’s why we’re proud to stand behind Reps. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerProtecting the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to the voting booth Republicans compare Ron Johnson to Joe McCarthy: NYT GOP puts pressure on Pelosi over Swalwell MORE (R-Wis.) and Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottIndustry, labor groups at odds over financial penalties in spending package Historically Black colleges and universities could see historic funding under Biden plan Republican Winsome Sears wins Virginia lieutenant governor's race MORE (D-Va.) to introduce the SAFE Justice Act – unique, bipartisan legislation that puts lessons learned in the states to work at the federal level.
This represents Congress’s first attempt at system-wide, comprehensive reform, addressing how we sentence, how we determine prison release, and how we supervise offenders upon their return to the community. Federal sentencing and corrections is a sprawling system; without attacking all facets at the same time, we can’t be assured of results.
Despite its wide reach, this bill takes a targeted approach. For example, it doesn’t reduce sentences across the board for all drug offenders. Rather, it makes long-overdue adjustments while ensuring that mandatory minimums still apply to the leaders and organizers controlling and driving the illegal drug market.
The SAFE Justice Act adopts evidenced-based solutions tested at the state level. It implements some of the best policy ideas from state efforts, stitching them together to form a bill grounded in data and research that will achieve what we all want: less crime at less taxpayer expense.
This moment has the potential to serve as a transformational point in our nation’s history. America is a nation that has always valued the rule of law. The justice system has always been the foundation upon which our society rests. To that end, we must be sure to preserve the balance between maintaining law-and-order and ensuring public safety. The SAFE Justice Act represents a significant step towards restoring the proper balance and creating a system that best serves the interests of all Americans.
Collins has represented Georgia’s 9th Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Judiciary and the Rules committees. Richmond has represented Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Homeland Security and the Judiciary committees.