OPINION: States, not feds, must take lead to cut crime
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All conservatives share the same goal when it comes to federal law enforcement: Increase public safety.

There are many ways to do this, and undoubtedly, long prison sentences for the most dangerous criminals is one of them. But long-term incarceration is not the be-all, end-all solution to halting violent crime.

Conservatives know that the federal government should not be involved in every aspect of our lives, and that includes law enforcement. Though there have been plenty of headlines about changes to the Department of Justice’s charging policy — requiring that all mandatory minimum sentences are charged for drug offenses, even for low-level, low-risk offenders — those procedures will have little effect on the nation’s crime rate.

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Of the nearly 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, fewer than 10 percent are prosecuted by the federal government.

 

Of that small sliver, only 3.2 percent of prisoners incarcerated with the Bureau of Prisons are serving time for homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping offenses.

The largest group of prisoners in the federal system are drug offenders who are not serving time for violent offenses.

Rather than doubling down on an old, discredited policy of sentencing low-risk offenders for long terms of imprisonment, policymakers must look to the history and evidence that comes to us from conservative states that have kept crime rates low and have not suffered the same fate of large liberal cities that do not value public safety.

Using a conservative solution to fight crime is what President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE’s administration and Republicans in Congress should be striving to do.

A decade has now passed since Texas undertook its first round of major criminal justice reforms, and the results could not be clearer. There are now fewer people in Texas prisons than there were in 2007, and in turn, the crime rate is at its lowest since 1967.

Every criminal deserves punishment, but incarceration is not the only form of punishment. Mandatory programs that work with offenders to get drug treatment, address mental health concerns, or find a way to pay restitution to a victim are all effective tools that decrease the likelihood that an offender will commit another crime in the future.

These efforts have been replicated in many other southern red states — states that delivered Donald Trump into the White House — such as South Carolina and Georgia.

There is little value in long sentences for low-risk offenders in general, and that is especially true in the federal system.

Research tells us that for such criminals, a shorter term of punishment is more appropriate and would be more effective in ensuring that after the individual has paid his debt to society, he is better prepared to reenter society as a changed man who will not commit more crimes.

We learned this as part of the Colson Task Force that issued its final report just last year, of which I was chairman. We spent months consulting with people involved in the justice system throughout the country — not just those stuck in the old ways of establishment Washington, D.C. — and heard about how effective alternatives to incarceration can be in fighting crime and preventing future crimes.

Our recommendations led with the principle that mandatory minimum sentences must be reserved for the most dangerous criminals, and that to do otherwise would contribute to overcrowding and wasted resources.

There is much work to do in order to keep America safe, and we must take care to not draw conclusions from mere correlations.

There is no cause-and-effect on violent crime rates that can be gleaned from federal sentencing procedures. The Department of Justice must remain focused on tackling the biggest cases with the most dangerous and powerful criminals that wreak havoc on our communities.

Focusing on low-risk, low-level offenders is not the way to do so.

J.C. Watts is a former member of the House of Representatives from Oklahoma and served as the chairman of the Colson Task Force, which was created by Congress to examine issue in the federal prison system. Watts is a signatory to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles, a conservative criminal justice reform platform.


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