Criminal justice reform is an issue close to my heart. For the almost 11 years that I was governor of Arkansas, not a day went by that I didn’t deal with prisons, inmates, clemency requests or some other aspect of our criminal justice system.
One in three American adults has some type of criminal record, and more than two million Americans are currently in state and federal prisons. And it is not just these individuals who are affected by our criminal justice system. Their families – including the 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars – and their communities are intertwined with the outcomes of our system.
A couple of decades ago, “tough on crime” was an applause line. It sounded good, but in reality, it didn’t make sense. It was tough on taxpayers, families and communities. The policy led to a system that excelled at punishment but was sorely lacking when it came to rehabilitation.
It costs more money to put a person in prison for a year than it does to put them in college and pay for full tuition, room and board, books, and even some spending money. Locking folks up without a plan for rehabilitation means that we are simply warehousing people in a very expensive prison system. With 77 percent of inmates rearrested within five years of being released, we need to find a better way.
The FIRST STEP Act, introduced by Representatives Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), provides a path to redemption and second chances. The act creates new, evidence-based risk and needs-assessment tools to help prepare incarcerated individuals to reenter their communities as law-abiding, productive members of society. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives in May and is in the Senate to consider and vote on the bill. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) has been a champion for smart criminal justice reform and can play a pivotal role in moving this bill in the Senate.
The reality is that 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released. However, even after someone has paid his or her debt to society, the tolls of incarceration are extensive and far-reaching, limiting opportunities for employment, housing, financial stability and education. Faced with these challenges, the cycle of crime too often repeats itself, putting communities at risk.
Without addressing why people ended up in prison, our corrections system is mostly a place where more criminal skills are learned. And upon release, the former inmate who cannot find a job ends up committing more elaborate crimes.
The bill works to address the root causes of criminality while equipping offenders with the tools to turn their lives around permanently. Eighty-eight percent of inmates in the Arkansas system were there for a drug- or alcohol-related crime. They either committed the crime while they were drunk or high or committed the crime to get drunk or high. Treating the underlying problems of criminality, such as addiction, will lead to better outcomes when the individual is released after serving their sentence. That may mean treatment for addiction, meeting mental health needs, education or job training.
In my experience, faith-based programs have shown to have long-term success rates in helping people turn their lives around. The FIRST STEP Act partners with faith-based and nonprofit groups to expand workforce programming and address addiction. Through a process of repentance, forgiveness, restitution and redemption, criminal behavior is changed from the inside out for lasting and rewarding change.
Americans benefit from a criminal justice system that improves public safety, strengthens families and communities, supports victims and protects taxpayers. Prison reforms such as the ones in the FIRST STEP Act inspire a culture of respect for every life and removes barriers to transformation so that people can go from prison to paycheck.
Mike Huckabee is a former governor of Arkansas and a signatory to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles.
This OP-ED appeared in the Des Moines Register. Read it here.