After leading the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force for a year and a half, I have seen firsthand how these most basic principles of freedom and fairness have fallen by the wayside in our criminal justice system. Our jails are overcrowded, our criminal code is convoluted and our taxpayer dollars are being wasted.
The United States is home to just five percent of the world’s population, but holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. From 1980 to 2013, the number of incarcerated offenders in federal prisons skyrocketed from 24,000 to more than 215,000. Currently, the federal prison system consumes more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.
Despite this dramatic rise in incarceration rates, recidivism rates have remained high. And even with the startling increase in prison spending, more than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of their release—proving yet again that big government does not mean better government. Something must be done, not just from a fiscal perspective, but a moral perspective.
When it comes to addressing over-criminalization, we have seen progress in states across the country, Wisconsin included. Many states have reduced both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years, making their communities safer. Cumulative cost savings in a subset of these states exceed $4.6 billion.
Wisconsin has been a leader in exploring alternatives to prison for low-risk, non-violent offenders struggling with addiction, mental illness and other health conditions. Recent studies have shown that for every $1 spent on these alternative programs, Wisconsin taxpayers would save $2 by averting high incarceration costs and lowering the crime rate.
Innovative solutions from the states have led to promising results. Now Congress must follow suit.
Last Thursday, I introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act with Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA). This bipartisan bill applies state-tested methods to reform the federal criminal justice system and curtail over-criminalization and over-incarceration.
The SAFE Justice Act will:
- Reduce recidivism and crime rates
- Concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals
- Expand alternatives to imprisonment
- Save taxpayer dollars
The road to criminal justice reform is long, but with a broad range of support from across the political spectrum coupled with momentum from state successes, the SAFE Justice Act is a monumental step forward.
I wish you and your family a happy and safe Fourth of July.