Opinion

A Reform-Minded Christmas

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Adam Brandon CEO, FreedomWorks

Christmas came a little early this year.

We saw the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 conservative lawmakers, emerge as an influential force in the lower chamber, and we witnessed a tremendous shift in power as Speaker John Boehner was ostensibly forced from his post and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was denied the gavel.

Even though we scored some important victories this year, there are still some things that we’re putting on our Christmas wish list.

First, we hope Santa will encourage Republican presidential hopefuls to continue to emphasize pro-growth policies that will jump-start the economy after a weak recovery. We’re also asking St. Nick to help us defend members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have disrupted the status quo of the Washington establishment. Thirdly, we want the Republican-controlled Congress to begin reasserting itself in its constitutional role as the lawmaking branch of the federal government, and keep unelected bureaucrats in check.

Another big-ticket item is movement on criminal justice reform in Congress. For the past year, FreedomWorks, as a partner of the U.S. Justice Action Network and the Coalition for Public Safety, has been educating and training our grass-roots activists on the damage inflicted by lengthy sentences imposed by big-government policies of the past and on the importance of reducing recidivism through rehabilitation programs, as well as promoting public safety and saving taxpayers money through reform.

It may seem odd that an organization like FreedomWorks is advocating criminal justice reform, but we believe it is consistent with our message of limited government and lower spending, as well as an absolute necessity when it comes to keeping our communities safe. We’ve seen the successes of conservative states such as Texas, and think similar reforms can be implemented in the federal prison system.

In 2007, Texas faced an immediate budget need of $523 million in prison construction costs and an additional $2 billion in the long term. Rather than continue to throw money at the problem, state lawmakers took a new and innovative approach to corrections, one that focused on data-driven, cost-effective policies to reduce recidivism and disrupt the seemingly endless cycle of crime and poverty that plagued the Lone Star State.

This new approach has paid off. Texas saved $3 billion in prison construction costs and even shuttered three prisons. The rehabilitation programs it implemented  — which focused on treatment, work training, and education — led to remarkable reductions in recidivism, and the state now has its lowest crime rate since 1968.

Using the Texas model as a guide, other conservative states — including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah — have adopted similar approaches. But, as is almost always the case, the federal government has fallen behind. Thankfully, that may change.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to accomplish these goals, the most recent of which is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This bill is the product of months-long negotiations between a bipartisan group of senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). This comprehensive bill advances criminal justice reform in a targeted way, with the primary goal of keeping our communities safe.

In the 1980s and 1990s, well-intentioned lawmakers passed policies that led to a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners, most of whom are nonviolent offenders, in the federal prison system. Since 1980, the number of federal prisoners has increased by nearly 800 percent, and the federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has grown from $970 million to $6.7 billion. This one agency has grown at twice the rate of any other under the purview of the Department of Justice and consumes a quarter of the DOJ budget.

In June, a group of more than 150 former law enforcement officials — including former FBI Director William Sessions and former U.S. Attorney Bob Barr, both of whom were appointees of President Ronald Reagan — came out in support of criminal justice reform. They noted that the rise of federal spending on corrections for nonviolent offenders “poses a risk to other areas of law enforcement by swallowing up funding.”

Indeed, it also represents a risk for communities once these offenders are released unless Congress acts to require meaningful rehabilitation programming to reduce recidivist behavior. By providing offenders with the means to live productive lives once they re-enter society, our communities will be safer, as has been proven in conservative states.

Criminal justice reform may be high on our wish list, but one can bet that families in communities with pervasive crime and poverty hope that Santa Claus can deliver a Christmas miracle. A 2014 study on the effects of incarceration by the National Research Council of the National Academies noted that communities where these problems persist face significant hurdles because of the current approach to corrections.

“Many of those entering prison come from and will return to these communities,” the study explained. “When they return, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness, substance abuse, family breakdown and neighborhood disadvantage.”

The atmosphere is ripe for a new approach to corrections that promotes a more effective use of taxpayers’ dollars and enhances public safety. With reform on the minds of conservatives and progressives alike in Congress, there’s a real chance that some Christmas magic could happen in the form of movement on criminal justice reform.

Adam Brandon is the president and CEO of FreedomWorks. Follow him on Twitter at @adam_brandon.