House Freedom Caucus Should Support Justice Reform This Fall

Coauthored with Nathan Leamer of the R Street Institute. This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on August 30, 2016.

Recently, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gave a much-needed boost to efforts in the House of Representatives to pass criminal justice reform, telling NPR that he expected to have a package ready for votes in September. Once a subscriber to the purportedly “tough on crime” policies which characterized Congress’s approach to justice, Ryan changed his tone in recent years as he toured impoverished communities and learned of the stigma which comes with a criminal record.

The House Judiciary Committee has been working on this effort since last summer, when Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) announced the formation of an initiative to study the issue and produce legislation. Since the fall, the committee has approved nearly a dozen pieces of legislation, including the Sentencing Reform Act, the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act, and the Criminal Code Improvement Act. These bills are the centerpieces of the effort in the lower chamber.

The House Freedom Caucus, an important and influential part of the House Republican Conference, has a tremendous opportunity to play an important role in the passage of criminal justice reform at the federal level. These bills are in the spirit of what has been accomplished in Republican states, not only with an important emphasis on preserving public safety in mind, but also fulfilling the view of our country being a land of second chances, bringing families together, and reducing prison costs.

Recent history has shown that criminal justice reform is a conservative issue. In 2007, facing an immediate need of $523 million for rising prison costs and $2 billion in additional anticipated costs by 2012, Texas passed a groundbreaking justice reinvestment initiative.

With an initial appropriation of $241 million, lawmakers sought to change the culture of corrections and reduce the influx of offenders in state prisons by focusing on accountability and treatment through drug courts rather than incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders. For those who did wind up inside prison walls, rehabilitative programs were implemented to provide offenders with job training and education to lower their risk of recidivism.

The Lone Star State’s effort has been a resounding success. Recidivism declined, crime rates continued on a downward trend, and the state actually closed prisons. In fact, Texas’ crime rate is at its lowest point since 1968. If those who oppose criminal justice reform were right, crime rates would have risen. Instead, crime fell by 24 percent. Texas also saved $2 billion.

The Texas model has been so successful that legislatures in several other traditionally Republican states have followed suit, passing justice reinvestment initiatives of their own in recent years, with a goal of reducing recidivism and enhancing public safety. These states include Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina (under current Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford’s leadership), and Utah.

Oklahoma, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, has passed sentencing reforms that reduce costly mandatory minimum sentences.

In Kentucky, another Republican governor, Matt Bevin, has made criminal justice reform a priority of his administration.

“From the very beginning, America has been a land of second chances. Even so, many in our criminal justice system are not given a path forward to become productive members of society after they have served their time,” Bevin said in June. “I believe in the importance of supporting basic human dignity. When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits.”

These efforts in traditionally Republican states have paved the way for the federal government to finally act after decades of harsh sentencing policies and a lack of meaningful rehabilitative programs in federal prisons. Instead of a top-down approach, we are witnessing federalism at work. First, states implementing better policies that work and, after careful consideration, the federal government following suit. No mandates, no one-size-fits-all cookie cutter fixes, just conservative principles holding their own when put to the test.

The federal prison population grew by nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, from some 25,000 prisoners to more than 219,000. The Bureau of Prisons’ budget grew from nearly $1 billion to $6.9 billion over the same period. Although the federal prison population has dropped under 200,000 in recent years, the associated costs of incarceration continue to rise. The Bureau of Prisons represents 25 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget, crowding out precious recourses needed to support law enforcement in other areas of public safety.

Criminal justice reform is a conservative policy idea, which is why Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have championed these issues in Congress. It is also a conservative legacy. While Texas was passing its groundbreaking justice reinvestment initiative, Barack Obama was a junior senator who was just launching his first campaign for president. As he has done on so many other issues, Obama has been leading from behind on criminal justice reform.

If a package of criminal justice reform bills is brought to the floor, the House Freedom Caucus should vote for it. These bills, which are a good first step toward more rational sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders and reducing recidivism, reflect conservative, limited government principles.

Jason Pye is the director of communications for FreedomWorks. Follow him on Twitter @pye. Nathan Leamer is a policy analyst at the R Street Institute. Follow him on Twitter @nathan_leamer