Criminal justice reforms are next big measure of state success

Public attitudes toward the U.S. criminal justice system are shifting, and reform no longer is solely a concern of left-leaning voices. In fact, diverse bipartisan coalitions in a number of states have prompted state lawmakers to make substantial changes to their criminal justice policies. And as the successes of these states become more apparent, it throws other states’ problem-riddled systems into sharp relief.

Specifically, there is a growing divide between the places that have committed to reform their justice systems and those that haven’t. As more state and local governments embrace their obligation to carry out this key function fairly and effectively, those leading the way are enjoying a well-deserved reputation for good governance.

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The clear leader in this movement is Texas, whose story has been told widely. Faced with a prison population projected to grow by 17,000 people in the following five years, but unwilling to spend billions of dollars on new prisons, Texan lawmakers launched a two-pronged reform effort in 2005. They worked to keep offenders who didn’t need to be imprisoned from landing there, using mental health and drug-addiction treatment programs, rehabilitative programs and alternative sanctions for probation and parole violators. Texas closed eight prisons, saving money and improving public safety.

Since then, more than 30 states have undertaken some level of criminal justice reform, and many of them have experienced significant success in reducing both crime and prison populations. In Michigan, where I work, we have cut the number of people returning to prison by more than 40 percent.

But some places lag behind. In Louisiana and Wisconsin, for example, reform advocates meet with strong opposition from groups or political leaders holding outdated attitudes about the justice system. Their opposition is misguided, and here are two reasons.

First, some old-guard Republicans may believe that deciding to pay attention to the justice system means their party somehow has lost a political battle or sold out to a leftist agenda. It is true that for many years criminal justice reform was seen as a liberal issue. But that does not justify refusing to consider changes to the system, given the depth and breadth of its impact on ordinary Americans, including those never arrested.

Moreover, this stance reveals a belief that reform is inconsistent with conservative principles such as individual liberty, property rights, limited but effective government, public safety, healthy families and communities, and victims’ rights. All of these values are part of the criminal justice reform effort, though, and they stand to be protected and improved with careful attention and legislation.

Second, it’s a mistake to underestimate the subtle but significant harm that a badly functioning criminal justice system has on a state’s overall well-being. The justice system is opaque and incredibly complex, and it can be tempting to overlook it in favor of other pressing issues such as rebuilding infrastructure.

But states are experiencing the consequences of neglect that, in some cases, has spanned decades. The ripple effects of crime and incarceration on children, schools, employers and wider communities are clear, and lawmakers no longer can afford to ignore issues such as needless barriers to employment for former offenders. Those barriers insidiously reduce the earning potential and odds of successful, productive citizenship for the tens of thousands of individuals with criminal records, and they hurt society by shrinking the talent pool and tax revenues that flow from gainful employment.

By contrast, where lawmakers have reached across the aisle and committed to addressing these complex challenges, there’s a pervasive sense of hope and accomplishment. There’s the sense that government is responsive to the real needs of the people, that it is trustworthy and effective. Citizens and lawmakers alike can enjoy peace of mind knowing that offenders actually are being rehabilitated and set up for productive citizenship, rather than an endless cycle of crime and incarceration.

Fifteen years ago, these successes might have been seen as unusual, enviable and out of reach. But as more states work to create constructive approaches to punishment for crimes, such reforms are becoming commonplace and expected. States that meet these expectations are considered leaders. States that refuse to find a way will find they’ve lost out on a key measure of success.

Kahryn Riley is director of the criminal justice reform initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research institution in Midland, Mich. Follow her on Twitter @kahryn_riley.