Blog of Rights

ACLU Joins Right on Crime, Prison Ministries, Bipartisan Legislators, and the ABA to Prioritize Criminal Justice Reform

By Inimai Chettiar, ACLU at 2:45pm

On Friday, I joined legislators and lawyers from all sides of the political spectrum to help launch the American Bar Association's (ABA) initiative to "Save States Money, Reform Criminal Justice, and Keep the Public Safe." I spoke about the urgent need for smart reforms to our criminal justice system — alongside members of Right on Crime (a conservative group led by Newt Gingrich), district attorneys, chief justices, and Mark Earley (former Republican Virginia Attorney General and CEO of faith-based Prison Fellowship Ministries).

As a religious Christian, I work tirelessly to reform our criminal laws because that's what my faith calls me to do. After studying law and economics, I came to understand how finance and faith-based compassion can often work in tandem to achieve social and racial equality. Nothing makes me happier than meeting advocates who have joined the call for reform in practice of their religious beliefs — or because they realize that our prison industry wastes massive amounts of taxpayer dollars while doling out racially biased justice.

At the ABA launch, bipartisan legislators presented success stories from states as diverse as Kentucky, Kansas, Florida, Texas, and New York. They explained how their states saved millions of taxpayer dollars by instituting reforms that rely less on prisons and actually reduced crime rates. For example, Texas passed reforms in 2007 that increased the use of drug treatment, parole, and probation and decreased reliance on prisons. The state saved $210 million in the first year and its crime rate dropped 3 percent — to the lowest rate since 1985. This is strong and undisputed evidence for other states to take up similar reforms.

I spoke to the group about our campaign for smart criminal justice reform — an ongoing priority for the national ACLU. (Hear our Executive Director Anthony Romero discuss our efforts to end mass incarceration on NPR earlier this week.) We work with bipartisan coalitions and legislators in states across the country and in Congress to achieve a host of reforms that are proven to protect public safety, increase fairness, protect civil liberties, reduce our reliance on prison, and save taxpayer dollars.

For example, this year in Maryland, we joined forces with legislators from the Tea Party, local progressive groups, and national conservative groups to pass a bill creating a pilot program to use non-prison sanctions for people who commit technical violations — like missing a parole meeting — while on parole. Almost one-third of people behind bars in this country are there for similar technical violations. This bill will allow the over $1 billion Maryland spends annually on corrections to be put to better use, while keeping the public safe.

In Louisiana, we are currently working in a coalition with the warden of Angola (the largest state prison), Catholic groups, and progressive groups to advocate for a bill that would release from prison elderly individuals who pose no threat to public safety. More than 20 percent of the incarcerated population in Louisiana is elderly — and many are in need of hospices or nursing care. As recidivism drops dramatically with age, it makes no sense to spend exorbitant amounts of money to imprison people who can be safely returned to their communities.

It's easy for anyone who values economics or faith-based compassion to see why such reforms make sense. The tide is turning against incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime. Never before have so many legislators, governors, and advocates from all sides of the aisle come together with a single unifying theme on criminal justice: we need to end our addiction to incarceration. Our coalitions are helping state governments across the country finally understand that our abuse of prisons doesn't make us any safer—it just wastes our hard-earned money, ensures that more Americans lose their lives to prison, and tarnishes our name as The Land of the Free.

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