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It's Time for Congress to Get Smart on Crime

Dan Zeidman,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 14, 2011

Our investment in the criminal justice system is not paying dividends. Exploding prison populations — driven by America’s “tough on crime” policies — have caused state spending on corrections to quadruple over the past 20 years and have put federal corrections spending at approximately $6 billion — an increase of 1,700 percent since 1980. Despite our massive and expensive prison population, experts estimate that increases in incarceration rates have “only a modest, and diminishing, impact on crime.” Additionally, recent data reveals that nearly half of individuals released from prison will be re-incarcerated within three years of their release. Put simply, we are spending enormous sums of money unwisely and are not seeing a proportional increase in public safety.

In an effort to comprehensively analyze and propose policy solutions to the extensive challenges facing state and federal criminal justice systems, a broad coalition of organizations — including the ACLU — issued a report titled, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Administration and Congress. The report calls for reform that is fair, proven and cost-effective.

On Wednesday, June 8, a briefing was held at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center to raise additional awareness about Smart on Crime’s efforts and to highlight successful initiatives being implemented in various states. The panel featured a broad range of ideological backgrounds and professional experience including David Keene, former Chairman of the American Conservative Union, and A.T. Wall, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. The panelists engaged in a thoughtful discussion about successes and challenges confronting criminal justice reform efforts in the states and how these experiences can inform decisions at the federal level.

One of the key takeaways from the briefing was that smart and effective criminal justice reform can be realized without jeopardizing public safety or political capital. By putting aside overheated rhetoric and demagoguery, meaningful reform is possible. Wednesday’s briefing underscored that the states are beginning the long process of improving their criminal justice policies and that it’s time for Congress to get on board.

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