What opponents get wrong about criminal justice reform 
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There’s a growing movement of Americans from across the ideological spectrum who now realize our current approach to criminal justice isn’t working and want to do something to fix it. Unfortunately, there are still some who think taking common-sense steps to reduce prison populations and help rebuild lives and devastated communities amount to being “soft on crime.”   

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage House gears up for Mueller testimony Trump's no racist — he's an equal opportunity offender MORE’ recent speech to law enforcement in Georgia is only the latest example of this cynical anti-reform mindset. Sessions is right about one thing — America needs to combat recidivism and keep violent, dangerous criminals off our streets. But much of his speech was based on the same misguided ideas and inaccurate data that has resulted in America having the highest incarceration rate in the world.


Sessions’ claim that the incarceration-first approach has been responsible for lower crime rates in recent decades is not supported by data. A comprehensive review of studies by the National Research Council concluded that any impact incarceration rates have on crime rates is likely small.

Putting more Americans behind bars doesn’t necessarily create safer streets; in fact, it often has the opposite effect because it is built on a common misconception: that harsher sentencing and mandatory minimums deter people from committing crimes.

The NRC review found the deterrent effect of lengthy sentences was “modest at best.” A similar review by the National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the Department of Justice that Sessions now heads, showed that longer prison sentences provide only “limited deterrent effect,” and this limited effect was dwarfed by massive social and economic costs.

Tough-on-crime posturing isn’t just an ineffective approach to law enforcement and a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s also an enormous waste of human potential. Men and women who, with the right opportunities, could become contributing members of their communities are instead trapped behind bars.

Take the case of Alice Johnson. Johnson is a mother of five who committed a first-time, nonviolent offense.  Due to mandatory minimums, she was sentenced to life in prison.

Johnson’s case eventually caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who recently commuted her sentence, but not before she served more than two decades in prison. The fact that Johnson is free is good news, but there are countless others like her behind bars who also deserve a second chance.

Tough-on-crime politicians like Sessions point to high recidivism rates as a reason criminal justice reform doesn’t work. Some, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), even claim that the reform efforts themselves are responsible for a recent crime-rate increase. But despite the terrifying picture they paint, there is no crime wave sweeping the nation. In fact, FBI data shows that violent crime is on the decline and, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, last year’s crime rates are projected to be the second-lowest since 1990.

They’re right to be concerned about recidivism, though. Too many former inmates are winding up back in the justice system after they’re released. But what tough-on-crime supporters fail to acknowledge is that a high recidivism rate is proof our current approach isn’t working, not an argument against reform. Since 95 percent of incarcerated individuals will be released from prison someday, shouldn’t we be implementing reforms that combat recidivism rather than perpetuating it?  

To see how effective a smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayer approach can be, Sessions and Cotton should look to the state reforms that are already paying off across the country, many of which were pioneered by Republican state lawmakers.  

The people of Georgia, where Sessions spoke, know reform can work. In 2011, their state legislature set out to learn what was causing their rapidly growing prison population. They discovered a sizable group were low-risk, nonviolent offenders.  

Since then, the Peach State has implemented a series of evidence-based reforms that shifted the focus from incarceration to rehabilitation. They diverted first-time offenders from prison, changed sentencing guidelines and created programs that help the formerly incarcerated successfully reenter society. 

From 2008 to 2016, Georgia’s imprisonment rate dropped 24 percent while the index crime rate dropped 6 percent, proving that criminal justice reform and safer communities can go hand in hand.  

Georgia isn’t alone. Thanks to reforms Texas began implementing in 2007, the Lone Star State has been able to close eight prisons and reduce crime rates to some of the lowest levels since the 1960s, all while saving taxpayers over $3 billion.  

None of this was reflected in Sessions’ speech. 

If policymakers want to get serious about creating safer communities and cutting crime, it’s time to focus on hard data and success stories from the states, not scare tactics and myths. Sessions, Cotton and their allies can start by supporting the FIRST STEP Act, a House-passed bill based on data-driven anti-recidivism reforms passed in states such as Texas. Senators are also considering adding modest sentencing reform provisions, including two measures Sessions himself supported in the past. All of these reforms poll very well with likely midterm voters.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE has already proven he understands our criminal justice system isn’t working, and that he is ready to do something about it. Will Sessions, Cotton and others follow his lead?

Mark Holden is general counsel for Koch Industries and chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Ryan Norris is Arkansas state director of Americans for Prosperity.