GOP contenders should run on ending mass incarceration

This op-ed was originally published at Red Alert Politics on October 5, 2015.

Agreement on big issues in Congress seems like a rarity, but there is growing support to address the crisis of mass incarceration from Republicans and Democrats alike. Even the GOP presidential contenders agree that the “war on drugs” has failed.

The costs of the federal corrections system are growing, and several pieces of legislation have been introduced to reform outdated sentencing laws and to bring state-proven policies that have reduced recidivism to federal prisons. In states such as Texas and Georgia, these policies have saved taxpayers money, while making communities safer.

During the latest CNN debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) about drug policy, and the libertarian-leaning Republican took the opportunity to talk about the problems with current policies, which have caused the federal prison population to explode by nearly 800 percent since 1980.

“I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual, and I think that America has to take a different attitude. I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I’m a fan of the drug courts, which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail,” said Paul. “And I think the federal government has gone too far, I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome, and really has been something that has really damaged our inner cities.
“Not only do the drugs damage them, we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting employment over time,” he added.
Indeed, the war on drugs has adversely affected poor and minority communities in inner cities. Last year, the National Research Council of the National Academies released a study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, which discussed this troubling issue.
“The rise in incarceration rates marked a massive expansion of the role of the justice system in the nation’s poorest communities. Many of those entering prison come from and will return to these communities. When they return, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness, substance abuse, family breakdown, and neighborhood disadvantage,” the researchers noted. “It is difficult to draw strong causal inferences from the research, but there is little question that incarceration has become another strand in the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities.”
Paul was not the only candidate on stage who grasped the issues facing the federal corrections system. Though he is aggressive in his opposition to changes to federal drug laws, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expressed support for rehabilitation over incarceration and acknowledged, “[T]he war on drugs has been a failure.”
Similarly, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiornia, whose stepdaughter suffered from drug addiction before passing away in 2009, also weighed in. “We do need criminal justice reform. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug related,” she explained. “It’s clearly not working.”
Paul, Christie, and Fiorina are not the only Republican candidates to offer support for justice reform. In April, the Brennan Center for Justice released a book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, which featured essays on these vital issues from of the top minds in the country.

Contributors included Paul and Christie, as well as their fellow Republican presidential hopefuls, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has since ended his presidential bid, also contributed an essay. Though he did not contribute to this book, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a signatory to Right on Crime’s statement of principles. Some may want to go further than others, but at least they recognize the problems.

Discussion of justice reform cannot come quickly enough. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) consumes approximately a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget, and its growth is a cause for concern because it is crowding out other federal law enforcement needs.

“[From fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2014], the rate of growth in the BOP’s budget was almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department,” DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote in November. “The Department’s leadership has acknowledged the dangers the rising costs of the federal prison system present to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission in other areas. Nevertheless, federal prison spending continues to impact the Department’s ability to make other public safety investments.”

By bringing state-proven policies to the federal system, policymakers can help reduce recidivism, which, as states have shown, will make communities safer and save taxpayers money. This requires a fundamental shift toward rehabilitation instead of incarceration through lengthy prison sentences.

Congress may act on some reforms in the coming months. But whoever wins the Republican nomination for president would be wise to seize on momentum as the first of many steps needed to change the culture of corrections in the United States.