Dear AG Sessions: The White House and math agree — crime isn’t surging but reform should be

Dear AG Sessions: The White House and math agree — crime isn’t surging but reform should be
© Greg Nash

The political climate of criminal justice reform is changing. But it seems that U.S. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThose predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The metaverse is coming — society should be wary MORE has yet to embrace the coming tide.

Last week, a group of Republican senators met with President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE to talk about a compromise bill that would combine the prison reform featured in the House-passed First Step Act with several new sentencing reforms. According to a senior White House official, Trump was supportive of the idea. This suggests that the administration appears to be catching the drift that longer punishments don’t solve either the crime or the over-incarceration problem but changes to sentencing and reentry may.


Nevertheless, that same day in Arkansas, Sessions once again urged Congress and state legislators to help him push a “tough-on-crime” agenda, featuring longer sentences for those who commit certain offenses.


“Our state legislatures need to help us and consider legislation that can help better target the criminals that need to serve more time in jail,” Sessions opined. He went on to argue that his policies and those of other politicians, such as Senator Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonCotton swipes at Fauci: 'These bureaucrats think that they are the science' Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE, are pro-law enforcement and pro-victim, with goals “to reduce crime and keep every American safe.”

Yet if reducing crime is truly the goal of the “tough-on-crime” agenda, Sessions and Cotton should be dedicating less effort to extending punishment and more to ensuring that any given punishment is effective at promoting individual transformation.

This is the goal of criminal justice reform efforts. And recent stats suggest it’s working.

States that embrace criminal justice reform are seeing significant gains to public safety. For example, in the period between 2006 and 2015, Georgia’s violent crime rate decreased by 21 percent. Likewise, during that same period, Michigan’s declined by 26 percent and Colorado’s violent crime rate dropped 19 percent. 

Furthermore, national violent and property crime rates have decreased significantly over the last decade. While a few cities continue to struggle with high murder rates, FBI data demonstrates a small decrease in overall violent crime and a 2.9 percent reduction in total property crime between the first six months of 2016 and the first six months of 2017.

But that’s not the only good news. According to a newly released report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, three-year recidivism rates compiled from data among 23 states decreased by 23 percent over a period of seven years. While almost half of individuals released in 2005 returned to prison within a three-year span, a little over a third of 2010 releases returned to the walls of a cell in that time. By the fifth year post release, the same group were 13 percent less likely than those released in 2005 to return to prison.

Despite such gains, last week, the nation’s chief law enforcement official also mistakenly stated that recidivism rates have been mostly stagnant for the previous four decades. Accordingly, these findings otherwise should be tremendous news for the Attorney General, who seemed doubtful that such positive reductions in recidivism could be seen.

Indeed, Sessions did, however, recommend that policymakers continue to “work at it,” noting that “[e]very five, ten, fifteen percent improvement in recidivism is a tremendous advantage to us all.”

In that case, it seems that recent shifts toward parsimony and rehabilitation aren’t so bad after all. In fact, the aforementioned statistics as well as those from other states such as Virginia and Texas show that investing in individual transformation is far more effective than choosing incapacitation and severe punishment. In fact, research demonstrates that the severity of punishment (as shown by longer and mandatory minimum sentences) has little impact on deterrence.

In light of this, what should we be doing instead?

Well, Michigan expanded opportunities for substance abuse treatment, parenting programs and founded a Prisoner Reentry Initiative that treats those convicted of crime according to their individual needs. Georgia supported sentencing alternatives, increased funding for behavioral health and focused their resources on helping individuals re-enter society rather than the system. Colorado reduced the punishment for low-level drug offenses, and utilized the resultant financial savings to support substance abuse treatment and behavioral health.

Put simply, the way to be “tough on crime,” is to be smart on rehabilitation. Instead of stretching already-limited state resources to chronically incarcerate, investments should be made in programs that focus on helping individuals return home as productive citizens. Such policies are already having a tremendous impact in the states that employ them. This proves that if Attorney General Sessions truly desires to reduce crime and make American communities safer, he should abandon arbitrary calls for more stringent penalties and focus instead on the quality rather than the quantity of time served.

Emily Mooney (@EmilymMooney) is a policy associate on R Street Institute’s justice policy team. Arthur Rizer (@ArthurRizer) is the director of criminal justice and civil liberties at R Street.