Editor’s Note: U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The views expressed are their own.
Senate Judiciary Committee to vote on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act
Major contributing factor to overcrowding in prison system is recidivism, writers say
This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on historic bipartisan legislation to reform our nation’s criminal justice system. We are proud to have been a part of the diverse group of senators who came together to craft this legislation, and we look forward to seeing it approved by the committee.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act takes a comprehensive approach to improving our criminal justice system, and while it includes commonsense changes to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders, the bill also includes legislation we previously introduced to help inmates better prepare for life after prison.
Most people agree that our prisons are overcrowded. From 1940 through 1980, the federal prison population was remarkably stable at around 24,000 inmates. But today, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there are well over 200,000. And at an average cost of approximately $30,000 per inmate per year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons spends billions of dollars annually to house and tend to this massive prison population.
One of the major contributing factors to the overcrowding of our prison system – and the skyrocketing costs that accompany that – is recidivism. Our current criminal justice system too often perpetuates a vicious cycle in which prisoners are released unprepared to succeed, only to reoffend and find themselves back in prison within a short time. In fact, one study released last year concluded that two-thirds of prisoners in the 30 states surveyed were arrested again within three years of being released.
Rhode Island and Texas have found innovative ways to help break the cycle of re-incarceration without jeopardizing public safety. By offering inmates the opportunity to earn less restrictive forms of custody in exchange for completing programs proven to reduce reoffense rates, the two states have achieved impressive results. Rhode Island’s reforms were followed by a 17% reduction in the state prison population, a 6% drop in three-year recidivism rates and a significant drop in crime. In Texas, similar reforms led to $2 billion in savings for taxpayers and allowed the closure of three facilities.
Similar reforms in three other states, meanwhile, have also been shown to help reduce racial disparities in prison populations.
We want to replicate these successes in the federal prison system, helping prisoners re-enter society, making communities safer and saving taxpayers money. The reforms we’ve written as part of this bill will require the Bureau of Prisons to provide inmates with vocational training, drug treatment and other recidivism-reduction programs. After completion of these programs, inmates deemed to be low- or medium-risk for reoffending could earn credits toward early release.
We also specifically require the Department of Justice to emphasize dynamic risk factors – things prisoners can change – rather than static factors. This will help ensure that prisoners aren’t unfairly punished for circumstances beyond their control, while giving all prisoners a chance to identify their own risk factors and address them.
The bottom line is this: Almost all inmates in our prisons will get out sooner or later. We are therefore all better off if they return to society better able to succeed. Our communities will be safer, our prisons less costly and overcrowded, and inmates themselves will have greater opportunity to build productive, crime-free lives after prison.
Texas and Rhode Island are 1,500 miles apart geographically and often even further apart in politics. But when it comes to commonsense criminal justice reforms, we’re proud to stand together.
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