Seeing Is Believing: Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Is Possible

In 2009, Terry Collins, then Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, explained, “We are at a critical and urgent stage. If current trends continue, our research indicates the population will reach nearly 60,000 inmates by 2018. I can tell you today, just to build beds to get us to 100 percent  capacity would cost us roughly $1 billion dollars, and that does not include the operational funding. Common sense sentencing reform says we must change and understand that some people can be punished and held accountable for their actions without being placed behind prison fences.”


Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, makes opening remarks

Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director, Center for Justice, serves as moderator

The panel, from left to right, Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, ACLU’s Vanita Gupta, Georgia State Sen. Curt Thompson, Nebraska State Sen. Dwite Pedersen. (Not pictured, Ohio State Sen. Bill Seitz)

The panel, from left to right, ACLU’s Vanita Gupta, Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, Ohio State Sen. Bill Seitz, Georgia State Sen. Curt Thompson, Nebraska State Sen. Dwite Pedersen

Director Collins 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. Experts like Director Collins are beginning to put their money where their mouths are by urging reform legislation to address over-incarceration.

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 report, Promising Beginnings: Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform in Key States.

A diverse group of states have all succeeded in cultivating bipartisan support for criminal justice reform measures that are not only cost-effective, but are actually improving public safety. With the current fiscal crisis, prisons bursting at the seams and gross racial disparities, now is the time for the federal government to follow the lead of the states and take a holistic look at the justice system. 

Today, the ACLU hosted a panel discussion featuring state legislators from both sides of the aisle and across the country who will discuss their work on criminal justice reform. This briefing highlighted reforms from a diverse group of states that are cost-effective and have improved public safety. 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.

The idea of a national criminal justice commission has gained bipartisan support in Congress as well as support from a range of stakeholder groups representing law enforcement, state and local governments. A bipartisan national criminal justice commission will create the political space for policy makers to engage in frank and thoughtful dialogue about the significant shortcomings of our current system. It is an important first step toward creating criminal justice policy that not only keeps us safe but also reflects our values.

You can help. Tell the Senate to adopt meaningful criminal justice reform now.

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