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What should criminal justice reform look like in 2020?

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In Michigan last week, a special task force on jails and pretrial incarceration released 18 policy recommendations to the state Legislature, recommendations which included diverting people with behavioral health and substance abuse problems from prisons and shortening maximum probation terms for felonies. 

Michigan’s efforts to implement criminal justice reforms come on the heels of a flurry of recent state leader actions. Earlier this month, Kentucky leaders pledged to make criminal justice reform a priority in a state that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

In December, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) released 23 legislative priorities for criminal justice reform. In November, 450 Oklahoma inmates were published in the largest commutation in U.S. history. 

America incarcerates a higher percentage of our population than any other country. As the executive director of an organization on the frontlines of criminal justice reform, I applaud these new legislative priorities.

Since 2007, more than 30 states have passed reforms to reduce incarceration, recidivism rates, and costs; and these reforms have seen significant results.

For example, Texas has saved over $2 billion, reduced recidivism by 25 percent, and seen its lowest crime levels since 1968.

But as more states and federal legislators begin to implement reforms, what should be the top priorities?

Narrow the net of incarceration

Incarceration isn’t the right answer for every crime. Offenders whose crimes are motivated by a mental health or substance abuse issue, for example, could be better served through other rehabilitation efforts.

We need to focus on improving early detection of behavioral health needs, expanding access to mental health resources and substance abuse recovery programs, and not making incarceration the default sentence for everyone.

Create effective rehabilitation programs

A 2019 report found that 58 percent of prison inmates don’t complete an education program while in prison, even though employment rates for former inmates increase by an average of 10 percent, on average, after they participate in a college program.

By increasing education opportunities for incarcerated individuals, we give them skills and post-incarceration opportunities.

Because incarceration and recidivism are so closely tied to poverty, educational opportunities are one of the best ways to keep former inmates out of prison.

Other proven rehabilitation programs include Bible-based trauma healing programs, prison work programs, and mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Prioritize public safety

All crimes are not the same, and resources and policies should be directed based on the offense. For example, the parole process for the non-violent should be more streamlined than the process for violent offenders, reducing costs, and enabling more resources to go toward making sure violent offenders are appropriately rehabilitated.

Similarly, we need to consider sentencing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. Instead of viewing imprisonment as a punishment for all crimes, its primary purpose should be to keep those who represent a public danger away from those they could harm. 

For example, in Michigan, traffic violations comprise half of all criminal cases; limiting driving-related incarcerations to those related to public safety would allow the system to focus its time and money on those most dangerous to society.

Break down barriers in communities

Reducing incarceration has to start in communities, with programs that target juveniles, reduce homelessness, help people access mental health and substance abuse services, and increase employment opportunities. These programs cost far less than incarceration.

Ensure prompt and fair outcomes for both the accused and the victim.

Nearly half of the over 16,000 people in Michigan’s jails are pretrial detainees awaiting trial. Effective reforms increase pretrial releases and reserve prison and jail resources for those who represent a flight risk or public safety threat.

Additionally, resources like counseling, legal representation, and compensation for victims of crimes sorely lack in states throughout the country.

The First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed last year, has already made progress toward reducing mass incarceration and reducing recidivism.

As of this week, all inmates have been assessed using a risk and needs assessment tool so that they can be assigned to the right rehabilitation and recidivism reduction programs. To take justice reform to the next step, we need the support of legislators on both the federal and state levels.

The Judeo-Christian values our country was founded on personal balance responsibility with forgiveness and mercy. Solutions that approach criminal justice with this mindset prioritize public safety and the wellbeing of both offenders and victims. 

Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. 

Tags Criminal justice reform in the United States Criminal law Incarceration in the United States

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