Three Red States Inspire Our Country On Justice Reform

Holly Harris Executive Director, U.S. Justice Action Network
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At a young age, Amanda Spicer found herself with a DUI, a meth habit, and expecting a child. Trapped in a generational cycle of addiction, the Oklahoma teenager had nowhere to turn. Angelica Maxwell’s five-year-old son called 911 on his mother whom he found in a deep, drug-induced sleep. He thought she was dead. She was arrested and separated from her children. To feed his heroin addition, Joe Chambers went on a bank-robbing spree in Kentucky and his sixth robbery landed him in prison.

Sadly, stories like these are becoming all too familiar. One in three American adults now has a criminal record, and many find themselves addicted to drugs, badly in need of treatment, with nowhere to turn. Even when they can get clean, their records make it hard to find jobs to support their families, so many return to crime and return to prison. We must break this cycle of failure.

At this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, three Republican governors will talk about their efforts to do just that.

On Tuesday during the Convention, Governors Nathan Deal of Georgia, Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma will participate in a special panel, moderated by Ohio Senate President Keith Faber and hosted by US Justice Action Network (USJAN) and GOPAC. The forum, entitled “Changing Laws, Changing Lives, a Governors’ Forum on Justice Reform,” will premiere USJAN’s short film, which documents the efforts of these three governors to enact reforms that break the cycle of incarceration, giving prisoners and their families a chance at a better future, and ultimately making our communities safer.

The hope for this forum is that it will spark a movement among conservatives across this country to support reforms like those passed in Georgia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and that Congress will start paying attention to what is happening in their own backyards, and bring federal reform measures to a vote.

Georgia is arguably the country’s gold standard. This year, Gov. Deal signed into law a third round of reforms that improved accountability courts and strengthened parole and reentry practices. Previous measures were aimed at reducing unreasonably harsh sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders and right-sizing Georgia’s juvenile justice system. Programs like Max Out Re-Entry (M.O.R.E.) and Goodwill-sponsored Stations of Hope offer transitional services — including counseling, drug rehabilitation and career placement — to inmates as they return to their communities. These reforms have lowered crime and recidivism rates, and while Gov. Deal is proud to have saved the state millions of taxpayer dollars, he’s most proud they have saved lives.

Gov. Bevin is the first Kentucky governor to meet with participants in the substance abuse program offered by the Roederer Correctional Complex. In April, Bevin signed a felony expungement law that offers non-violent offenders an opportunity to wipe their slates clean after a crime-free period. In an attempt to make Kentucky the example for the nation, Bevin launched the bipartisan Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council to clean up the Commonwealth’s archaic penal code.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin focused her efforts on strengthening and restoring families. Currently, Oklahoma has the highest rate of imprisoned women in the country. The reform program Women in Recovery, which boasts a recidivism rate of less than four percent, offers women convicted of non-violent offenses a rehabilitation alternative to prison. These women receive intensive treatment for their drug addictions and counseling that helps to successfully reunite them with their families. Just this year, Gov. Fallin signed several reform bills into law, including a reduction in the mandatory minimum sentence for drug possession and an expansion of effective alternatives to incarceration.

While we will be highlighting reform efforts in Georgia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, more than half the states across this country have implemented some level of smart justice reform. But reform must extend to all 50 states, and to our federal system. Data shows that reform efforts to safely reduce the prison population and break down barriers for returning citizens so they can find jobs and support their families result in lower crime rates, lower recidivism rates and hundreds of millions in taxpayer savings. And during a time when our country is afflicted with mass shootings and domestic acts of terrorism, that’s money that can be reinvested into effective law enforcement efforts focused on the worst in our society.

The states, our laboratories of democracy, are leading the charge on smart justice reform. But Congress is lagging painfully behind, and reform legislation at the federal level has stalled. USJAN assembled a petition to urge our elected officials to enact legislation that will make our criminal justice system work, not only for taxpayers, but for the men, women and children who are deeply impacted by the failures in our broken system.

Amanda Spicer, Joe Chambers and Angelica Maxwell are on the road to recovery. But each have access to state rehabilitation efforts that treat their addictions, and policies that offer a path forward when they return to society. Their stories of redemption should serve as inspiration to conservatives, progressives and everyone in between that the time for smart justice reform is now.

Holly Harris is the Executive Director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.