Reform prison sentencing — and save money

We’re surprised at how many people ask why we, as Republicans, are working to change our criminal justice and prison systems. Why wouldn’t we?

We must change our current system—a system that drains tax dollars, destabilizes families and, worse, isn’t making us any safer. That’s why we have joined other Republicans, law enforcement officials, crime victims and many others in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot initiative that will prioritize incarceration resources for serious and violent crime, while investing savings in proven crime-prevention approaches.

The Pew Center on the States found that someone in prison in 2009 was serving a sentence 51 percent longer than in 1990 – for the same offense.

This common-sense measure epitomizes an important trend in our country. There is a growing consensus among Americans from all political persuasions and walks of life that we must replace ineffective, unfair and expensive incarceration practices with new, smarter approaches to keeping communities safe.

The United States has 500% more people today in its prisons and jails than 30 years ago. Our general population certainly has not grown at this rate (it rose only 36.3% from 1980 to 2010); the real driver has been “tough on crime” laws that sent more people to prison for longer terms.

The Pew Center on the States found that someone in prison in 2009 was serving a sentence 51 percent longer than in 1990 – for the same offense. And when the Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed three states (Florida, Maryland and Michigan) in 2012, they found that many nonviolent inmates released could have served 3-24 months less without any decline in public safety.

Criminologists, law enforcement officials and policymakers are realizing that in an effort to be tough on crime, we actually ended up being tougher on families and taxpayers, without improving safety.

Kentucky is one of many states that decided to reverse this trend. After watching its prison population increase by 45 percent between 2000 and 2009, the Legislature enacted the Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act in 2011. Of this law’s many provisions, a key strategy was prioritizing prison space for serious crime and diverting people convicted of low-level drug offenses to supervised probation and treatment.

Kentucky now has four times as many slots available for drug treatment than in 2007 and has watched its crime, recidivism and incarceration rates drop. The state is on track to save $400 million by the end of this decade.

California should take note. The Golden State is the under a federal mandate to reduce prison crowding and has watched its prison budget balloon to $10 billion in 2014. That exceeds the total budgets for 12 U.S. states.

Despite all this investment, 61 percent of individuals leaving California prisons return within the first three years. Many are addicted to drugs and are not required to seek treatment, and 45 percent of California prisoners have recently experienced mental illness.

When you consider these factors – and the $62,000 price tag for each prisoner per year – California is right to look for new ways to hold people accountable for non-violent crimes.

That’s where Proposition 47 comes in. Called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop. 47 will reclassify six non-violent felonies to misdemeanor punishments. Instead of sending someone to prison for simple drug possession, writing a bad check or petty shoplifting, other forms of accountability – focused on actually changing behavior – will be utilized by prosecutors and judges.

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office projects the Act saving taxpayers $150-250 million every year, which would go into drug and mental health treatment, K-12 crime-prevention programs and victims’ services.

It’s therefore no surprise that conservatives embrace this measure, along with District Attorneys, judges, veteran law enforcement leaders, crime victim groups, chambers of commerce, faith leaders and many more. When something offers so much promise for our public safety and public resources, why wouldn’t we?

Ed’s Note: Rand Paul is a Republican U.S. senator from Kentucky. B. Wayne Hughes Jr. is a California businessman and founder of Serving California, a foundation that helps crime victims, the formerly incarcerated and veterans.

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