10 years of #JusticeReform success: Tough on crime, not on criminals


When you hear “tough on crime”, you think of convicting criminals with long, harsh sentences and no parole. For decades, that was the standard operating procedure for states and cities across the country. One minor problem - it made crime worse, not better.

After nearly 10 years of trying new ideas in some of those states, the evidence is clear. Being tough on crime requires treating criminals like people, since, well, they are.

In 2007 Texas was faced with a problem - build new prisons it couldn’t afford, or find another way. It found another way. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative increased rehabilitation services in several areas: drug abuse, mental health, occupational training, and education. The results are undeniable. Texas saved between $3 and 5 billion in costs and has lowered both crime rates and the state prison population by double digits.

Since Texas pioneered the approach, 32 states have made significant reforms to their criminal justice systems and subsequently seen decreases in both incarceration and crime rates, according to Jenna Moll of the US Justice Action Network at FreedomWorks’ #JusticeForAll summit over the weekend. It’s simply a provable fact now that there is no public safety benefit from incarceration-only policies.

The problem with the old “tough on criminals” approach is that 95% of convicts get out of jail. What shape do we want them in when they do? Do we want them ready to reintegrate into society, healthier, smarter, more well adjusted? Or do we want them locked away for years with their own kind to hone their anti-social behaviors into superpowers?

There is an even more personal reason why we should treat criminal suspects and convicts like people - they are us. According to Holly Harris at USJAN, 1/3 of Americans have some kind of criminal record. There are undoubtedly gender and racial disparities in that statistic, but it is a notion of fantasy that “criminals” are a different class of people and that the rest of us are somehow immune from criminal behavior.

Certain learned anti-social behaviors can be predictors of criminal activity, which might suggest certain people have an increased chance of committing crime. ┬áBut there is also the matter of overcriminalization. So many things are a crime now, even a felony, that every single one of us could be convicted of something we don’t even know is illegal. And so many laws have such low standards of liability that you can be convicted of most crimes without even knowing that you did anything wrong.

To paraphrase Gordon Gecko, justice reform is good. Justice reform is right. Justice reform works. We now have almost 10 years of evidence proving it. Now let’s finish the job.

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