Republicans Should Promote Justice Reform in State of the Union Response

This op-ed was originally published at Medium on January 6, 2016.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will deliver his last State of the Union address to Congress. The address will no doubt have a heavy focus on foreign policy, terrorism, and controversial gun control actions. Another topic expected to receive some attention, with legislation on the move in the Senate, is criminal justice reform.

It would be an understatement to say that there are frequent disagreements on policy issues between the president and congressional Republicans. The White House has been promoting sentencing reform, corrections reform, and prisoner re-entry for months. Criminal justice reform is one area that has found support from some of the most conservative members of Congress, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chose South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union. Although the speech will offer the GOP’s perspective on policy issues, especially in an election year, Republicans would be wise to include criminal justice reform in Haley’s remarks.

South Carolina has already implemented some criminal justice reforms that could be used to promote the issue from a conservative perspective. In 2010, both chambers of the South Carolina Legislature approved the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act, which overhauled the state’s sentencing and corrections policies.

Prior to this legislative effort, South Carolina had seen the size of its prison population grow from some 9,000 inmates in 1983 to approximately 25,000 in 2009. The cost burden on taxpayers grew significantly as lawmakers increased spending on corrections by more than 500 percent over the same period.

The approach of the past was failing. Despite South Carolina’s reliance on incarceration, recidivism rates — the percentage of offenders who are re-arrested after release from prison — remained depressingly high and the state’s prison population was expected add an additional 3,200 inmates by 2014.
Lawmakers’ motivation in passing the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act was to promote efficiency in the state’s criminal justice system. The legislation, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Mark Sanford, adopted a similar approach to that taken in other conservative states, such as Texas, which, in 2007, began implementing the first in a long series of reforms to stem the costs of corrections.

The legislation stiffened sentences for violent offenders, reformed sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders, and took a proven approach to corrections by relying on data-driven policies to assess the risks of an inmate becoming a repeat offender once they re-entered society.
The new approach has been successful. A June 2015 report from the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee noted that the average prison population in the state has declined by nearly 10 percent. While the non-violent population dropped by 30 percent, the number of violent inmates actually increased by 6 percent. The South Carolina Department of Corrections also closed two facilities.

Although South Carolina’s prison population declined, public safety in the state was enhanced after the passage of these common sense criminal justice reforms and, just as importantly, taxpayers saved money. “The violent and property crime rates fell by 16 and 7 percent, respectively, between 2010 and 2013,” Pew Charitable Trust explained in an August 2015 report. “To date, the measure has saved the state at least $18.7 million, with additional cost savings arising from avoiding projected prison population increases.”

Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell have expressed support for bringing the conservative policies that have been so successful in Republican states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas to the federal level criminal justice system. Legislation has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to do just that.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which counts Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as cosponsors, would expand the federal “safety valve” exception to mandatory minimum sentences to include more low-level, non-violent offenders with little to no criminal history. The bill would also require the implementation of data-driven reforms to rehabilitate offenders to reduce their risks of recidivist behavior.

With federal spending on corrections expected to continue to grow and, quite possibly, crowd out funding for other pressing law enforcement needs, Republicans should embrace criminal justice reform in their State of the Union response, and Gov. Nikki Haley, given the success of these reforms in South Carolina, would be a great voice to deliver the message.