There’s a growing movement of Americans from across the ideological spectrum who are beginning to realize that our current approach to criminal justice isn’t working and want to do something to fix it.
The Keystone State should be a place where folks who have earned second chances, get them. Deserving inmates should have a fair chance to rebuild their lives, reunite with their families, and reenter their communities after paying their debt to society.
Fortunately, there’s a bill before the U.S. Senate that can do just that. The FIRST STEP Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. House of Representatives, would create access to second chances for individuals transitioning to life after prison and reduce the number of incarcerated Americans and is a bill Americans for Prosperity wholeheartedly supports.
Helping inmates transition to life after prison would lower recidivism, save taxpayer money, prepare folks to tackle future challenges, and lead to safer and stronger Pennsylvania communities.
We agree that America needs to combat recidivism and keep violent, dangerous criminals off our streets. But high incarceration rates don’t necessarily lead to safer streets; in fact, it often has the opposite effect because it is built on a common misconception: that harsher sentencing and mandatory minimums deter people from committing crimes. A comprehensive review of studies by the National Research Council found the deterrent effect of lengthy sentences was “modest at best.”
Tough-on-crime posturing isn’t just an ineffective approach to criminal justice and a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s also an enormous waste of human potential.
Pennsylvanians who, with the right opportunities, could become contributing members of their communities are instead trapped behind bars.
We can look to state reforms that are already paying off across the country to see how effective a smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayer approach can be.
Georgia has implemented a series of evidence-based reforms that shifted the focus from incarceration to rehabilitation. They diverted first-time offenders from prison, changed sentencing guidelines and created programs that help the formerly incarcerated successfully reenter society. From 2008 to 2016, Georgia’s imprisonment rate dropped 24 percent while the index crime rate dropped 6 percent, proving that criminal justice reform and safer communities can go hand in hand.
Due to reforms Texas began implementing in 2007, the Lone Star State has been able to close eight prisons and reduce crime rates to some of the lowest levels since the 1960s, all while saving taxpayers over $3 billion.
If we want to get serious about creating safer communities and cutting crime, it’s time to focus on hard data and success stories from the states.
Senators Toomey and Casey have an incredible chance to help by supporting the FIRST STEP Act. The bill would create evidence-based risk and needs assessment tools that would be used to prepare incarcerated individuals to successfully reenter their communities as law-abiding individuals. The FIRST STEP Act would also ban the shackling of pregnant inmates, allow individuals to earn good time credits of up to 54 days per year, allow outside programs into federal prisons to enhance rehabilitation and reentry, and require prisoners, based on their level of risk, to be placed in facilities within 500 driving miles of their primary residence.
Working to reduce crime and break down barriers to opportunity for folks who deserve second chances is something folks from both parties can agree on, and we urge Senators Toomey and Casey to support the FIRST STEP Act.
(Beth Anne Mumford is State Director of Americans for Prosperity. Find her on the internet at www.afppennsylvania.com.)