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Our Ruinously Expensive Criminal Justice System

In June, the Coalition For Public Safety, a bipartisan group consisting of Center For American Progress (CAP), Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), FreedomWorks, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, announced their Fair Sentencing & Fair Chances campaign, which aims to reduce recidivism rates, the prison population, the cost of incarceration, and reforming the socioeconomic barriers that often make convicts transitioning back into society almost impossible.


In a statement, Executive Director Christine Leonard said, “When the U.S. makes up only five percent of the global population, but represents 25 percent of the world’s prison population, it’s clear that our criminal justice system isn’t working.”

“We have too many prisoners, our facilities are well beyond capacity, it’s costing taxpayers $80 billion per year, and current policies create significant human costs to families and communities across the nation as those caught up in the system continue to struggle to turn their lives around and avoid re-entering the system,” she added.

Some states have already begun reforming their systems to address these issues.

"Several states, including Texas and Georgia, have proved that reform works through declining prison populations, cost-savings, and reduced crime and recidivism rates,” said Freedomworks’ Jason Pye.

Tim Head, Executive Director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, touched upon how mass incarceration is effecting the social fabric of the country, and how reducing rates of recidivism–and the policies that exacerbate that problem–keep families divided.

“The time has come for bipartisan sentencing and prison reform that better protects our communities and better prepares returning offenders to be parents, spouses and employees. Through modest, incremental changes, we can make criminal punishments better match the crime, give people who have paid their debt to society a second chance, and reduce the costs of the state and federal prison systems,” he said.

Concerning being tough on crime and serving the interests of public safety, ATR’s Grover Norquist said “The cost of keeping people in prison has grown right along with the number of people being kept behind bars. The disappointing fact is that none of this has not always made us any safer.”


On July 14, Coalition for Public Safety hosted a discussion with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), John Cornyn (R-TX), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Mike Lee (R-UT) on the need for criminal justice reform in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building. The panel was moderated by former executive editor of The New York Times Bill Keller, now editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project–a nonpartisan news outlet that specializes in news related to criminal justice–who wanted each lawmaker to lay out a pitch for criminal justice reform, and why it’s needed. Every senator touched upon the points raised by the Coalition’s members.

Sen. Cornyn started the conversation by saying whether we like it or not, the issues surrounding our criminal justice system effects us all because these people who we’ve locked up will be released back into society; most of the people we have in prison are nonviolent offenders. He proudly mentioned how Texas was known for being tough on crime, but then became “smart” on crime around 2006-07.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) touched upon how over-sentencing has staggering economic and moral costs.

“With as many people as we incarcerate sometimes for decades at a time, we need to consider the impact this has on the American family, and on communities throughout America who are missing sons, and fathers – nephews and uncles – members of the community who could be playing a meaningful role,” said Lee.

As a former federal prosecutor, Lee mentioned how federal judges know the sentences they have to hand out are unjust. He distinctly remembers many judges saying the following upon sentencing:

“This sentence that I’m about to impose is one that I’m required by federal law to impose. It is excessive; it is plainly excessive in proportion to the conduct involved in this offense. Nonetheless, this a determination for Congress, not for me, my hands are tied. I hope Congress will change something.”


Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said that for all of our criminal justice system’s ills, it’s virtually the envy of the world. As a result, we have an obligation to improve it, to keep making strides in making it the best way to dispense justice.

He also touched upon the bipartisan nature of this issue, noting that Rhode Island and Texas are as far apart in terms of size and political disposition, but as lawmakers they were still able to come together.

Sen. Booker aptly noted “If you’re a fiscal conservative, dear God; this is your issue.” He took a more data-focused approach to his pitch, going down the list where every person from every political stripe would find some area of agreement.

He mentioned our criminal justice system has seen an explosion in government spending on the federal level amounting to an 800 percent increase. That, in turn, siphons funds away from basic government programs, infrastructure funding, and education, though some of those areas are also in drastic need of reform, especially in how our schools are run. Nevertheless, Booker had the rather disturbing statistic that we were building a new prison every ten days between 1995-2006.

Regarding child welfare, Booker noted that we have an inordinate number of children suffering due to our incarceration rates. Concerning the economy and GDP growth, the U.S. has lost of tens of billions of dollars in economic productivity.

Regarding limited government, mandatory minimum sentencing is–as Sen. Lee pointed out–a gross intrusion of the federal government into the courtroom. With a prison population that’s risen 700 percent, our current system has become ruinously expensive.

Sens. Cornyn, Whitehouse, and Lee mentioned their pieces of legislation are aimed at reducing costs.

The Cornyn-Whitehouse bill introduced in February–officially called the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act­–tackles prison reform (via The Hill):


The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons.

The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences.

It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.

Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense.

Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.

In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law.

The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law.

Sens. Patrick Leahy and Lee also put forward a piece of legislation in February that addresses the inequities within mandatory minimum sentencing, and reduces the time to be served for nonviolent drug offenses. It doesn’t eliminate mandatory minimums, but Lee described it as a good first step. This is also part of his reform agenda, which began in 2013 when the senator decided to get serious about policy. 

In May, National Journal  wrote that Lee felt "equality, diversity, and sustainability” should be the three principles that guide the conservative movement. The article also mentioned how Lee isn’t comfortable with being an “agitator,” with the senator saying, “It’s not in my nature.” He finds comfort in the “tedious,” “unglamorous,” and “wonky” pursuits of trying to right the ship of state with policy reforms that avert the progressive icebergs that dot the sea of American politics. Some of his work has caught the eye of President Obama, and Lee mentioned on the panel that he gives credit to Obama for being focused and engaged on the issue of criminal justice reform.


Lee is particularly proud of his work with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin on criminal-justice reform. In February, the pair introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which seeks to rationalize federal sentencing for drug offenders. "This is very much a reaching-across-the-aisle exercise," Lee tells me, pointing to cosponsors ranging from Al Franken to Cory Booker to Rubio to Cruz. Even the president is on board, he beams. "I went over to the White House a few weeks ago for a meeting about criminal-justice reform," he says, "and the president spoke at length about how much he liked my bill."

About 35 minutes into the discussion all four senators noted that they had votes to cast, probably on amendments regarding the Every Child Achieves Act. Yet, the panel did touch upon another area that needs reform: civil asset forfeiture.

Lee virtually described how the system is a perversion of justice, where law enforcement can seize assets, including property, without proving beyond a reasonable doubt that such resources have been–or will be–used in a felonious act. It places the burden of proof on the accused, where the citizen whose assets have been taken is considered guilty and must prove his or her innocence.

The Coalition for Public Safety also has a 501(c)(4) project called, which acknowledges that it has been used as a useful tool in fighting crime, but is also ripe for abuse.

“Asset forfeiture can be a critical tool for law enforcement to combat criminal activity,” said Senior Project Director Holly Harris in a statement. “But, it’s also a tool that can be abused, entangling innocent property owners with the costly and often bizarre task of having to prove their property “innocent” of criminal activity. And when the nation’s most well-respected conservative and progressive voices agree that a system is broken, it is time to get to work on a solution,” she added. Often times, those impacted by civil asset forfeiture do not have the legal fees or the time to get their property back. When Fix Forfeiture was launched in June, it said:


At the federal level, 80 percent of individuals from whom the government seized funds or property were never charged with a crime. Since 2001, more than 60,000 cash seizures were made by the federal government without search warrants or indictments, totaling more than $2.5 billion.

Fix Forfeiture will begin its state work in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, three states with year-long legislatures and interest in reform. In Michigan, House Speaker Kevin Cotter and House Judiciary Chair Klint Kesto are taking the lead, and a set of reform bills recently passed out of the Michigan House of Representatives by overwhelming bipartisan margins. In Pennsylvania, Senator Mike Folmer recently filed common-sense reform legislation, and momentum is building for companion legislation in the House. Ohio boasts pioneers in criminal justice reform work, and hope is high that civil asset forfeiture reform will be part of that conversation this legislative session.

In all, overcriminalization and civil asset forfeiture are the two issues that galvanize conservatives to join the cause of reform. At the same time, honoring the basic principles of fairness, along with the hideous costs, is what seems to unite both sides that seek to create a fairer criminal justice system together. Something has got to give. With nearly a third of the U.S. population with a criminal record, something has to be done regarding rehabilitation, reducing rates of incarceration, reducing (or eliminating) mandatory minimums on nonviolent offenses, and the ability to participate in obtaining GEDs and job training seem to constitute the consensus regarding how to tackle this issue on both sides.

Sen. Booker noted how one obstacle that threatens to poison the well is fear. Fear is pervasive among members of Congress. Fear of being viewed as soft of defense, crime, and immigration seem to be surefire ways to mobilize a primary challenge. The fear of being viewed as soft on crime is something that some lawmakers on the Hill will probably ponder during these discussions.


“Fear is a toxic state,” said Sen. Booker. But he’s not unfazed by it if it means bringing a sense of mercy, justice, and empowerment into these discussions.

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