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January 30, 2018

SOTU Preview: Criminal Justice and Prison Reform

Both parties recognize that there is a problem with our current justice system.

Tonight, President Donald Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address, which will include the accomplishments from his first year in office as well as cover several needed areas of reform, such as immigration and health care, and improvements, like infrastructure. It’s also anticipated that President Trump will spend some time discussing the need for criminal justice and prison reform.

Such reform is something we have written about for the past several years, but little has been done at the federal level to address the issue. While reforming criminal justice and our prison system may not be considered top priorities for many Americans, there seems to at least be some agreement in Washington from both parties on the need to take action.

Both parties recognize that there is a problem with our current justice system and both recognize that our prisons are overcrowded, many with people who have not committed violent crimes. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two parties voting on prison reform is the goal. Republicans would like to see reform occur so that people guilty of non-violent crimes can be given a second chance and become productive citizens. Democrats see it as an opportunity to secure more votes — that is, they would like to restore full voting rights to those who have forfeited them by being convicted of a felony.

American prisons are overpopulated and the Land of the Free has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. There are millions of people in federal prison, many whom are behind bars for years as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing for committing non-violent crimes. Further, the recidivism rate among federal prisoners is also very high. In the past few years, some states — Texas and Kansas, for example — have implemented conservative policies to address prison reform with tremendous success.

Trump and his Justice Department are reportedly “fully on board” with proposals for prison reform. Earlier this month, Trump held a meeting with Governors Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Sam Brownback of Kansas as well as Koch Industries General Counsel Mark Holden to discuss prison reform and reducing recidivism.

Holden, who’s worked on the issue for years, argues that policies like mandatory minimum sentencing are not working. He lamented, “I think our system has miserably failed us in the past 30 to 40 years.” He added, “More people have criminal records than college degrees. If you look at the federal system, they’re still in the 1980s. … They’re still using ‘lock 'em up and throw away the key.’ It’s failing, it’s inhumane, and it’s counterproductive.”

Holden pointed to the tremendous success with Texas prison reform between 2007 and 2015. During those years, Texas “expanded the number of specialty courts from nine to more than 160, expanded substance abuse programs, expanded the number of halfway houses, and challenged local probation departments, offering them additional state funds if they reduced the number of probationers returning to prison by 10 percent.” As result of these reforms, Texas was able to shut down three prisons and six juvenile facilities, save $2 billion from the state budget, and watch the crime rate drop to its lowest level since 1968.

Governor Brownback hailed the success of the mentoring programs within the state of Kansas. The mentoring program consists of person-to-person relationship building, which helps people who were in prison get back on their feet once released. As a result, the Kansas recidivism rate has been cut in half. 

As seen above, there have been several successful state prison reform programs, and several conservative groups are hoping for President Trump to push for several proposals at the federal level.

Some conservative groups recommend that AG Jeff Sessions open up the Bureau of Prisons to outside service providers, which currently have limited access. Policies could include a mentoring program that starts when a person enters prison until several years after they leave, as well as ending or reducing mandatory minimum sentencing and allowing for lower courts to decide how much time fits the crime. And don’t get us started on civil asset forfeiture. The goals should be to give people second chances, reduce recidivism, spend less on prisons and ultimately make our communities safer and our people freer.

Trump has an opportunity to bring both parties together on prison and criminal justice reform. Many good policies have been tried and proven to work in certain states and, as is the point of federalism, other states and the federal government can learn a thing or two.

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