Blog of Rights

Promising Beginnings: States Provide a Model for Federal Criminal Justice Reform

By Dan Zeidman, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:00pm

In his 2007 State of the State address, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) aptly explained, “I believe we can take an approach to crime that is both tough and smart…[T]here are thousands of non-violent offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore. Let’s focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

Gov. Perry is just one voice in the chorus of policymakers, from both sides of the political aisle, calling for serious criminal justice reform that promotes public safety, reduces unsustainable prison populations and saves scarce taxpayer dollars. Elected officials like Gov. Perry are beginning to put their money where their mouths are by passing reform legislation to address overincarceration.

For example, in 2008, former Gov. Haley Barbour (R- Miss.) signed legislation that allowed all incarcerated individuals convicted of nonviolent felonies to be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences. In Kansas, conservative lawmakers mandated community-based drug abuse treatment and community supervision for nonviolent offenders convicted of drug possession for the first or second time. And last year, in Ohio, a Republican-majority legislature passed a measure that is projected to save $1 billion over the next four years by — among other things — increasing the amount of time a prisoner can earn toward early release, eliminating the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity, removing mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenses and increasing the use of diversion programs for low-level drug offenders.

Many other states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia, have also passed legislation that will reduce corrections spending, enhance public safety, and increase justice. A more detailed discussion of these reforms can be found in the ACLU’s recently released report, Promising Beginnings: Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform in Key States.

While the reforms discussed in this report do not represent the final solution to our incarceration crisis, it is encouraging to know that legislators in a variety of states are working in a bipartisan manner to thoughtfully address this serious problem. Given the successes of these state initiatives, now is the time for Members of Congress to put aside petty politics and pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S. 306), which would create a bipartisan commission tasked with examining the nation’s criminal justice system and offering reform recommendations in a number of important areas including sentencing policy, law enforcement, crime prevention and re-entry.

With over 2.2 million people incarcerated in local jails or in state or federal prisons, now is the time for the federal government to follow the lead of the states and take a holistic look at the justice system.

As the bill’s author, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) explained on the Senate Floor, “Nowhere is the need to think creatively for the good of the country more clear than where it affects our dysfunctional criminal justice system, whose challenges threaten the safety and the well-being of every single community and every single American. This system will not be fixed by sticking our heads in the sand and pretending not to see its failings. It will only be fixed by bringing together good minds who have dedicated years of thought and action to finding the answers.”

Take action now. Tell Congress to support meaningful reform by passing the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011.

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