It's Time to Discuss Criminal Justice Reform

Presidential election season is prime time for predictions. One sure bet is this: neither candidate is likely to make criminal justice a stump issue. But another sure bet -- the candidates' laser focus on the economy -- should make a discussion of criminal justice reform, and its potential to reduce fiscal waste, unavoidable.

Rarely has the intersection of politics and criminal justice produced sensible responses to crime or rational conversations about our criminal justice system. Instead, politicians spar about who is "tougher or softer on crime." See Willie Horton and the 1988 election. Since President Richard Nixon first announced the "War on Drugs" 40 years ago, the United States has adopted "tough on crime" policies driven all too often by political and emotional considerations at the expense of data-driven practices and programs that would have been far less costly and far more effective at promoting the health, safety and productivity of families and communities across the country. As a result, between 1970 and 2010 the number of people incarcerated in this country grew by 700 percent. This massive explosion in our prison population has caused federal and state governments to dramatically escalate their spending on corrections. States have been spending an ever-increasing percentage of their budgets on prison-related expenses, cutting into scarce taxpayer dollars while coming at a great expense. By 2007, states spent more than $44 billion on incarceration -- a 127 percent jump from 1987.

The effects? Mass incarceration has had a particularly devastating effect on communities of color. One in every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated, and one in three black men, and one in six Latino men, will spend some part of their lives in prison. After 40 million arrests and $1 trillion spent, drugs remain readily available, overall usage rates in America haven't declined, global consumption of opiates, cocaine, and cannabis increased between 1998 and 2008, and drug-related violence has only increased in many Latin American countries. No other state-sponsored program has a 1/3 to 2/3 failure rate as exemplified by recidivism rates and yet been perpetuated by the government with such gusto. Polls show the public agrees: in a survey of more than 1,000 Americans, 66 percent think the War on Drugs has been a failure.

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