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States Lead the Way on Criminal Justice Reform

Over the past several months, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a step back on federal justice reform efforts, regressing to purportedly “tough on crime” stances. From advising increased penalties for nonviolent offenders to more recently promising an increase in the use of civil asset forfeiture by the federal government, Sessions has been doing everything in his power to give the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s full support to 80s-era policies from which many conservatives have abandoned in favor of evidenced-based practices that reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

A study from the Urban Institute found that increased penalties were at best mixed in reducing crime with other factors beyond incarceration driving down the incarceration rate, no evidence it drove down drug crime, and the use of imprisonment as a deterrent to be very costly. As of 2015, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world at 25 percent while the total number incarcerated has increased by 500 percent over the last forty years.

Meanwhile, the recidivism rate within three years of release increased by five percent between 1983 and 1994, highlighting a failure of harsher sentences to reduce both incarceration and reimprisonment. Keeping in mind that over-incarceration costs taxpayers at all levels of government around $80 billion each year, and those costs are only rising, it comes as no surprise that the “tough on crime” mindset has become both costly and unpopular after failing to get tangible results.

What is surprising about this is that the states seem to be taking the opposite direction in pursuing criminal justice reform. From increased protections implemented on civil asset forfeiture to expanding licensing opportunities, states have been leading the way in creating new methods to reduce crime, incarceration, and recidivism. The amount of work and variation is actually quite amazing.

One such reform was pursued in the state of Kentucky. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed SB 120 into law, which would eliminate a blanket ban on getting a job license and instead transfer it to a licensing board which will review each case. This will open up opportunities for previous offenders to now get jobs which will make it easier to reintegrate into society.

The state legislation comes at a very important time for both the country and the state of Kentucky. A report from Reason magazine highlighted that prevention from getting a license due to a criminal record can increase the recidivism rate. There have been repeated cases where individuals have had problems getting licenses because blanket bans like the one in Kentucky have prevented them from getting jobs.

A study by Arizona State University economist Stephen Slivinski found that recidivism increased by a whopping 9.4 percent in states that had blanket bans for former offenders while in states where it was easier for them to receive licenses it decreased by 4.2 percent. In addition, it was found that “between 60 and 75 percent of released prisoners remain unemployed one year after getting out” which is a problem since a Manhattan Institute Study found that employed individuals are more likely to return if they do not find a job relatively soon to release. Overall, a job is more likely to get people out of crime and reintegrated into society so reform like that in Kentucky will be a step in the right direction.

For Kentucky, especially at the moment, this will help address problems it is facing. At the moment, Kentucky is failing to fill 110,000 job openings and ranks as having the 47th lowest job participation rate in the country. Getting reformed offenders into the job market will reduce that rate and help get new applicants for the jobs it is failing to fill.

Similar concepts have also been pursued in the state of Illinois. As the Reason magazine article also notes, Illinois had passed a law in 2011 to ban all licensed healthcare professionals with a previous criminal record. This had initially been done since sex offenders had somehow managed to get licensed as doctors and nurses, but the problem is that the law was far too broad, applying to all former offenders as well.

This included one Carlos Romero, who had left prison in 1993 and had been working for two years as a respiratory therapist with no legal issues after release until his license was revoked in 2013 because of the 2011 law. Romero and several other individuals who had not committed a legal wrong after release had lost their licenses. In response, he worked with State Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) to create an appeals process that would allow him and others with a previous conviction to make an appeal to get their license back. In 2016, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the legislation into law, allowing Carlos and countless others a chance to get their jobs back and remain proud contributors to the economy.

This is not the only reform the state of Illinois has pursued. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill to add burden of proof requirements to the police’s use of civil asset forfeiture, a tool that allows police to seize from accused individuals who have not been convicted. Though the bill has not yet been signed by the governor, it has veto proof majorities in both houses. Considering the fact that Chicago Police Department has acquired $150 million in assets from low income and minority neighborhoods and it has included “things like flashy jewelry, flat screen TVs, and a copy of the Call of Duty: Ghosts video game,” this reform is clearly needed.

Kentucky and Illinois are not the only states have pursued reforms. In Nebraska, State Sen. Laura Ebke (L-Crete) is pursuing the same reforms as Kentucky, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has implemented civil asset forfeiture reforms in Arizona to allow for more transparency, the state of Louisiana passed ten new laws on various justice reform topics this year, and many, many, MANY other states have done similar work. It would appear that across the country, states doing everything to find new and smarter ways to address and reduce crime in ways that drive down recidivism and restore rights.

The DOJ is continuing to pursue “tough on crime” policies, but the states continue to believe it is better to be “smart on crime.” Increased penalties have been tried for decades and there is lackluster evidence that it has accomplished its goals at a reasonable cost. Meanwhile, states are pursuing newer, fairer, smarter, and better ways to reduce crime, protect rights, and promote outreach. With trends the way they are now, the country will like continue down this path with the states continuing to lead the way on justice reform.