The irony of today’s tough-on-crime rhetoric

America faces a challenge on the issue of crime. Whether we deal with it effectively or not, however, depends on the willingness of leaders from both the left and right to drop the slogans and culture wars and truly put public safety first.

“Let them go.” “Lock them up.” “Defund the police.” “Back the blue.” Conflicting messages from political leaders are not only confusing and divisive, they also miss the point that many people don’t feel safe and want solutions that work.

Regardless of the historical decline in overall crime rate — a trend that accounts for the current uptick in certain violent crimes — some are demagoguing the broader issue to usher in an era of draconian sentences under the guise of public safety. Ironically, these tough-on-crime proposals can actually make things worse.

Locking up every offender for every crime is not the way to produce safer communities. We know that prison has almost no impact on crime. in fact, some studies show that long sentences can increase crime. So, why do we keep doubling down on this strategy?

People must be held accountable for their actions. But there is a point of diminishing returns for using incarceration to manage crime. Because governors and state legislators must balance budgets, solutions such as violence prevention programs, substance use treatment, job training, and mental health care don’t get funding. Taxpayers instead shoulder skyrocketing costs to cover the building, operating and filling of prisons — leaving people and communities worse off.

we can have safer neighborhoods while addressing incarceration rates and being smarter with taxpayer dollars. Here are some proven approaches:s

  • Diversion programs, especially for youths, veterans and individuals experiencing mental health illness, poverty or drug use. Tossing people into a system that exacerbating these challenges is expensive, inhumane and ineffective, and won’t help people choose a better path going forward.
  • Reforms for sentencing and parole. America is the land of extreme sentencing. Decades-long and life sentences offer little chance for redemption, and — drumroll — do not make us safer. Numerous policies to cap incarceration for minor offenses, such as those adopted by Louisianahave reduced reoffense rates and saved taxpayers money.
  • Education and job training. The higher the degree earned in prison, the less likely someone will be to reoffend. Since every case of recidivism is a new crime, a new court case and a new victim, leveraging education to reduce the reoffense rate is one of the most cost-effective crime control strategies.
  • Records clearance. A criminal record makes it difficult to find a safe place to live and access meaningful work — two critical ingredients for getting on your feet after prison. Yet, we often impose an economic life sentence for those with a felony conviction. Clearing old criminal records for those who remain crime-free gives people a chance to rebuild their lives.
  • Better policing. Justice reform is inextricably linked to better law enforcement. Today, police are pulled in every direction — called to be not just cops but traffic monitors, social workers, mental health professionals, substance use disorder experts, and marital counselors. with police officers policing everything, they have a harder time keeping our communities safe. More resources and training, combined with specialized community programs to address such things as mental illness and substance use, can enable police to better serve and protect.

None of these is a new idea. Beginning in Texas in 2007significant criminal justice reforms have advanced in jurisdictions across the country. Groups including the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union have worked on policies in more than 30 states that have lowered crime and incarceration rates. These efforts culminated in landmark criminal justice reform legislation signed in 2018 by Donald Trump. That bill, the First Step Act, is helping transform federal prisons from warehouses of inhumanity to places where rehabilitation happens.

Unfortunately, the impact of the pandemic on crime and bitter partisanship on both sides of the aisle threatens to derail a real policy success: criminal justice reform. If we halt this momentum, politicians will send us back to days marked by high crime and high incarceration rates. If our leaders have the best interests of their communities in mind, they’ll leave the scapegoating and political divisions behind in their pursuit of truly effective solutions that make America safer.

Ana Zamora is the founder and CEO of The Just Trust, which is dedicated to advancing criminal justice reform across the country. Follow her on Twitter @anarzamora.

David Safavian is director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice, which works on policies that improve public safety, ensure accountability, and foster human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @DSafavianEsq.

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