July 31, 2018

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.  

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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.


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Comments 1-25 of 50

  • Lavada L. Adams

    08/08/2018 10:53 AM

    My son was sent to prison with no prior felony convictions when he was 26 and served a year and was out on parole. I know first hand how the prison system sets people up for failure. When prisoners are released they are not free, they are in bondage to the state. Trying to hold a job and report to a parole officer every two weeks is a hard thing to do because most employers don't want to employ people who have to take off from work often. Also, they have to have money to pay the parole officer each visit and their fees at the courthouse on top of that. He died a few years ago with a broken spirit and it broke my heart.

  • Tresa Ames

    08/03/2018 11:05 PM

    People released from prison with felonies have large debt and fines and can't get out of the valley, can't find gainful employment. Also financial drain on family.

  • Betty L Harris

    08/03/2018 01:43 PM

    I'm very concerned about the confiscation by the general government of Social Security funds.
    We paid in ... but they talk about going "broke." As we all know, government seems to fund everything else - and much with our money?!
    I would hope the government - the Senate - the House would ADDRESS and CORRECT this!
    I would like to get the monthly stipend of an illegal alien! It's much larger than my Social Security!
    I so enjoy and appreciate your interpretations of current events and legislative issues!

  • David Colonna

    08/02/2018 09:52 AM

    Now this is a great MAGA program which definitely needs to be passed and made in to law. The people it helps need to know too this is a bipartisan bill, but most credit need to go to the right because the right is truly the true American party. Note: however when Hillary, Obama, Comey, Peter S., Mueller and the rest get thrown in prison we definitely need to throw away the key so they cannot destroy our President and country again!

  • Marilea Ryder

    08/02/2018 08:54 AM

    Yes! I am writing to a prisoner that I know only through a church friend, His crime is drug-related, and I don’t know the details. Last February he witnessed a riot and agreed to testify against the participants. Before he could do so, they attacked and stabbed him eight times. Though he survived, he went through an operation, ICU, recovery, then prison isolation (for his protection), and has been moved from OK to an Illinois prison due to overcrowding here in OK. I think rehab for drug addiction would be less expensive for tax-payers and more beneficial to the offenders. When Johnathan (Whittington) does get out, his employment opportunities look bleak.

  • Jackie meyer

    08/02/2018 12:02 AM

    My only granddaughter is in prison for the 2nd time on drug charges. I pray that something like this can help young people. She will be 34 when released and can't imagine what her future holds. Thank you for writing this article as it gives me a little hope.

  • Mark Stripling

    08/01/2018 11:58 PM

    I am heavily involved in prison ministry. My heart breaks for the 25 year old who tells me he just started a 35 year term. Families suffer horribly. One man told me his wife was forced to prostitute herself from time to time to get a bill paid. These men need help and support when released, and a faith based partnership would go a long way toward lowering recidivism.

  • Joseph Behrendt

    08/01/2018 09:35 PM

    People have been trying to rehabilitate ex-cons for decades and what has been the result? Most return in 6months to a year for the same crimes. The reason is that rehab in most cases doesn't work. It is just like quitting smoking , you can do it if you really want to. These people usually have been in and out of jails all their lives so if they wanted to go straight they had plenty of chances to do it. Prison has every aspect of the outside ,jobs, libraries and counseling . There are also groups that can help with jobs when they get out and to get further education if needed. Also why are there so many still on death row after 10 or 15 years. Tell the do gooders to stay out of law enforcement and bring back the death penalty also stop the plea bargaining and give criminals a fair sentence to their crimes and no early paroles. Make prisons a place that again make criminals fear instead of embracing. One only has to look how crimes have evolved to see people don't fear the laws or punishment. If gangs thought they would get the death sentence and it would be carried out in 6 months they might figure it wouldn't be worth doing the crime . Right now there is no deterrent for anyone to be good. Drugs are prevalent in jails more than out they get clean cloths and good beds and 3 squares a day and all they have to do is obey the rules . Sheriff Apio had the right Idea and that was to treat criminals as criminals and not victims of society. I've lived 75 years without a rape sheet and I'm no saint so if I can do it why can't others. Maybe we should start by actually locking up the criminal politicians and stripping their wealth from them after all they got most of it from the Taxpayers , then maybe the rest will see we really are a nation of laws and not just talk.

  • Tom Buttram

    08/01/2018 09:08 PM

    Mike: You say often you read comments: Every time I see Sarah, I am amazed. Last night I told my wife, "Now that's some girl!" I know you are proud, I am proud for you. America should be proud, she is all-together!
    Now: I think I have an idea that President Trump could use to build the wall and it would build his base at the same time. I know how arrogant it sounds to say that "I have an idea for the president" but if I could just bounce it off someone who could run it up the pole, I would travel anywhere to do so. Can you help?

  • Cathy Kimmel

    08/01/2018 06:29 PM

    Loved your article on prisoner reform.
    My husband is serving in a federal prison in NC and knows that inmates are getting no training or rehabilitation. He says all they talk about when getting out is making money by selling drugs. That is all they care about.
    Of course, sentencing reform is a must. He is 72 years old, in poor health, first-time, non-violent offender serving a 20 yr sentence because he trusted the wrong people and ended up being the scape goat. He has tried for over a year to be transferred to a closer facility to be closer to family.
    I realize that he is considered a “bad” guy but the whole system is a joke and family members of all the inmates are treated disrespectfully!
    My husband is a great guy and could be a wonderful advocate for both prison and sentence reform if given the opportunity.
    If there is anything you could do to help him get transferred or to get his clemency request granted, we would be so grateful.
    God bless you and continue the good work!
    Mrs. Cathy Kimmel

  • Holly Cortez

    08/01/2018 06:22 PM

    Why don't prisons become technical skill training centers. They spend their time learning a trade that is marketable while incarcerated. Then to entice employers to hire them, when they are released, have the federal government offer to pay part of their salary for the first year. In the 70's National Alliance Of Businessmen had a program that helped high school students learn a trade, prior to graduation that was similar. It might work with non violent offenders??

  • Lloyd Richardson

    08/01/2018 06:17 PM

    I don't think I am quite with you on this one. And "1 in 3 adult Americans???" We should just give up now.

  • Greg Buchan

    08/01/2018 05:48 PM

    First step should be to stop employers from using criminal convictions as a screening tool for employment. It’s seems every job me requires a background check, as such, most folks with any even slight blemish in their background don’t even apply, they’ve learned that when BG checks apply, go elsewhere!

  • Teresa Norman

    08/01/2018 05:44 PM

    In response to article,Arkansas needs complete over haul of their judicial and prison system. We can't call our selves christians by constantly condemning people for mistakes they have made,government is not God. Society as a whole has no right to be judge and jury we are to help our fellow man. Incarcerated individuals have paid their debt so man made laws, after they need have records expunged upon release. The employer sector will always discriminate against people who have been classified as a "felon" "x-con" .Arkansas imprisons people for drug addiction,mental illness instead of investing into rehabs,counseling or mental health facilities. Prisons are legalized slave labor,inmates are subject to abuse by staff and other inmates, inadequate health care and mental health care. In order to rehab individuals,there needs to be treatment,counseling specific to problem. yes I'm a RN also an advocate for prisoners and mental health.ADC feeds the public what they want to hear,but do minimum for inmates,by doing so public believes everything is smooth going,doing a great job which is not so, ADC does not publish deaths of inmates from drug abuse or abuse by staff,its all a hidden secret.We need to treat not repeat,by incarcerating people with drug addiction,mental illness we are providing more criminal education not rehabilitation. Question a woman has control of her body they say,so should be able to abort her unborn child,but yet not charged with murder,but if a man ingest drugs in his body its a felony but its his body,so whats the difference?

  • Paul Kern

    08/01/2018 05:38 PM

    You will need to put a muzzle on "progressive" judges. In one case a judge banned a faith based group helping inmates in a midwest state from helping them. They brought in people who helped them in getting an education, connected them with business owners from outside who were ready to hire when they got out. Because it was a faith based group the judge banned it. Here in the Northwest few groups help those in prison and/or drug treatment programs. It's an endless cycle. Few people know of the deep needs of this group and their families/loved ones on the outside. As a mental health and drug addiction counselor I've been in the midst. I've seen both the good and the bad. There has been millions of dollars thrown at the problem but until they accept that faith is a big part of the puzzle. Let's hope this gets passed and there are good boundaries put around it.

  • Delane E. Morgan

    08/01/2018 05:25 PM

    This would be a good idea, but would depend on how it is instituted. As with all addictions, the success would depend on helping people to want to end their addictions and have a better life and opportunities for employment. For our day and time it would be worth trying if the aim would be rehabilitation and not just containing.

  • Mike Smith

    08/01/2018 04:58 PM

    Hi Mike,

    I love reading your articles. Always interesting, educational and inspirational.
    A question came up in my mind while reading about the First Step legislation.

    When did it become accepted that when a person finishes the sentence handed down by a judge or jury, that their "debt to society has been paid" ?

    That was only the punishment part of the event. The debt is much greater and requires many more years and much more effort. By going along with the idea that the debt was paid while incarcerated, it's doing a dis-service to the convict and their victims.

  • Stephen Thomas

    08/01/2018 04:39 PM

    A comment on the percentage of ILLEGAL ALIENS incarcerated and suggested appropriate responses would have added a meaningful dimension to this article.

  • George J Riffel

    08/01/2018 03:07 PM

    That sounds like a very productive plan Mike ! Most everyone deserves a 2 Nd Chance ??

  • Pamela Carroll

    08/01/2018 02:41 PM

    I appreciate your concerns about prison reform. My son was sentenced for selling drugs. He never used a gun or violence. I was greatly saddened by the lack to educational opportunities, meaningful work, or positive enfluences in the Leavenworth Prison. He will, no doubt, come out a broken man.

  • Shirley Frederick

    08/01/2018 02:40 PM

    1 in 3 adults have some sort of criminal record? Is that a typo? I would respectfully question that stat. That would mean that if I’m in a work meeting with 21 people, 7 have “some sort of criminal record”. That just cannot be correct.

  • Joseph Zera

    08/01/2018 02:38 PM


    Sounds good. May I recommend something like the 12 step process and using Stephen Arterburn's book. It made a difference in my life.


  • Joan Johnson

    08/01/2018 02:32 PM

    Dear Mr. Huckabee, there is another horrendous practice in our criminal justice system that you did not address. The Sex Offender Registry tags a person for life. It doesn't matter how small an offense was, it gets a person a label and many restrictions on where they can live or work or visit....for LIFE. A person must check in with the police 4 times a year and pay a fine at each visit for the rest of their life. It is truly a life sentence, never to be lived down. How does one ever recover from such a sentence? They can't and lose all hope and dignity. They can never return to society.
    Thank you.

  • Nancy Culkin

    08/01/2018 02:32 PM

    You are spot on Governor. People don't realise that true healing only comes from God.l have seen people struggling to get clean and do the right things,but only the ones who travel with God make it. Most of the time.

  • Pat Larson

    08/01/2018 02:27 PM

    Greetings Gov. Huckabee, this is an issue that is close to my heart because I have a friend that is incarcerated for the very crimes you mentioned in your commentary. He has repented and turned his life back to Jesus, pled guilty to the crimes he committed, offered to pay restitution and there he sits in prison unable to do anything to improve his life after he gets out. His children are waiting for him and he wants to get busy working so he can pay the people back that he stole from. He has been incarcerated for two years and has two more to go. By then his oldest son will be almost grown. This is not good for them. Gov. Huckabee, do you have any advice?