House Speaker John Boehner’s statement last Thursday calling for criminal justice reform was a welcome cap to a week of bipartisan and inter-branch voices calling for reform of our federal prison system. The Speaker is the latest in a long list of conservatives championing an approach to sentencing and corrections policymaking that is not just “tough on crime” but Right on Crime.
In just one week, the Speaker announced that he supports criminal justice reform moving forward in the House of Representatives, The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a two-day hearing on federal criminal justice reform, and Barack Obama became the first President in modern history to tour a federal prison.
The President gave passing credit to the states for leading the charge on criminal justice reform, but this credit should not go understated. Over the last decade, states like Texas, Utah, Georgia, and my home state of Ohio have been leaders in criminal justice reform, embracing policies that focus prison beds on serious and violent offenders. The results of these initiatives are staggering: lower costs for taxpayers alongside declining rates of incarceration, recidivism, arrest, and crime rates have continued to fall to decade lows.
As we saw in many states, political leaders from the left and right joined together to enact reform that reduced crime, lowered costs, and kept families intact. The President has consistently spoken about the left and the right coming together to stop the gridlock in Washington but has surprisingly not been outspoken on such a major political topic that crosses political lines until the 7th year of his presidency.
Although dragging behind, the federal government could soon be getting much needed criminal justice reform. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, and Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia have proposed the “SAFE Justice Act,” a bipartisan and broad-based criminal justice reform bill that will address a litany of issues that have support from both sides of the aisle. In addition to Speaker Boehner’s support for the bill, it currently has the support of more than 30 cosponsors. The SAFE Justice Act focuses incarceration on violent and high-level criminals, while expanding diversionary programs, such as drug courts for lower-level offenders. By placing an emphasis on alternatives to incarceration for lower-level offenders, the federal criminal justice system can save millions in taxpayer dollars, while reducing recidivism and making our neighborhoods safer.
This week, I had the honor of attending a bipartisan summit on Fair Justice in Washington, D.C. The summit focused on discussing solutions to the federal criminal justice system. Many prominent leaders from both parties were in attendance, including Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Rand Paul, and Representative Bob Goodlatte. Speaking on behalf of the “SAFE Justice Act” were the authors, Representative Sensenbrenner and Representative Scott, who received support from both the Republican and Democrat attendees for their reform efforts.
Normally, a “don’t hold your breath” mentality should be taken with any major comprehensive reform the federal government attempts to tackles. However, no issue has had the broad-based support and the robust research base to back it up such as the “SAFE Justice Act.” Act. It is time to seize this bipartisan momentum and get criminal justice reform to the President’s desk in the near future.
Ken Blackwell is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and the American Civil Rights Union, and on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.