Conservatives Finally Wake Up to Prison Reform

Skyrocketing incarceration rates not sustainable

Judge Greg Mathis | 3/19/2014, 10:11 a.m.
Judge Greg Mathis looks at the changing political climate around prison reform.
Judge Mathis

A recent column in Washington, D.C.-based paper The National Journal describes in detail how prison reform is becoming a key theme among conservatives.

The Heritage Foundation, an ultra conservative think tank funded heavily by the Koch brothers, is now aligned with a cause Democrats and minority grassroots organizations have long championed.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is now a supporter of pending legislation in the U.S. Senate that amends mandatory minimum sentencing laws to give judges more flexibility and several Republican leaders have joined him to support similar reforms.

I have consistently said that reforming our nation’s prison system is the right thing to do morally. In addition, research shows that investing in comprehensive prison reforms will save tax-payer dollars and improve outcomes for ex-offenders.

Traditionally, Democrats have made up the majority of policy-makers calling for legislation to reduce incarceration and re-arrest rates among inner-city and low-income youth. However, now - faced with increasingly strained state and federal budgets -- Republicans are starting to realize that we must change the way our nation's prison systems are run.

Mandatory minimum sentencing has contributed to a steep rise in our federal prison population. More than 14 percent of Americans are behind bars and the federal prison system has more than quadrupled since 1980. First time non-violent drug offenders can often serve long-term prison sentences with no option for parole.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, Sen. Paul acknowledged drug-related sentences “disproportionately affect African-Americans.” Black and Latino-Americans make up over 58 percent of our prison population, despite being only 25 percent of the American population. However, the true rallying point for many conservatives is the reality that these long-term prison sentences and a growing prison population are not helping to reduce crime.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law. This law written by Democratic Rep. Danny Davis and Republican Sen. Rob Portman offered federal grant funding to state and local government agencies and nonprofit organizations to support innovative efforts to reduce re-arrest rates and overall prison populations.

In my home state, the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative expanded its parole programs and invested in transition plans that included employment guidance, mentoring and counseling services for ex-offenders. Between 2005 and 2011 Michigan saw 5,000 fewer ex-offenders return to prison. In addition, between 2002 and 2008 Michigan’s prison population fell by over 12 percent and the state closed more than 20 correctional facilities.

Compelling research that proves investment in prison reform and ex-offender reentry pays off is an attractive sell to budget conscious Republicans who were previously tone-deaf to widespread dysfunction in U.S. prisons. America has one of the highest incarceration rates of any industrialized nation in the world and leaders in both parties are beginning to realize that this trend is not sustainable. States across the country are running programs similar to Michigan’s and they have witnessed comparable results.

Some politicians have been reluctant to support programs helping ex-offenders, because they want to be tough on crime. During election cycles being "soft on crime" is never a good thing. However, the facts show that our current policies on crime are not effective and far too expensive.

Our public officials need to be smart on crime and invest in programs that will allow our prison systems to offer true rehabilitation. This includes career development and mentoring to help ex-offenders readjust to society and avoid being arrested again. It also includes investment in youth violence prevention with similar programs focused on education, job training, and mentoring.

As Republicans are beginning to realize, these commitments will ultimately lead to less Americans behind bars and long-term cost savings.

Judge Greg Mathis is known for his advocacy for equal justice. His inspirational life story of a street youth who rose from jail to Judge has provided hope to millions who watch him on the award-winning TV court show Judge Mathis.