Column: Criminal justice reform still critical

Nancy Brune

In light of Congress’ failure to produce any significant piece of legislation in the past six months, one could despair of government’s ability to do anything.

But recent criminal justice reforms in half a dozen states — including Michigan, Louisiana, Nevada and North Dakota — reflect a significant departure from Beltway politics in two ways.

First, while partisan rancor paralyzes Washington, state lawmakers have crossed party lines to pass landmark criminal justice reforms. Many of these legislative packages were approved by both Republican and Democratic governors alike.

In Nevada which recently concluded its legislative session, 25 bills seeking to reform the state’s criminal justice system were passed by the Democrat-controlled houses and signed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Second, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged prosecutors to impose the most serious charges for drug offenses, state lawmakers are moderating sentences for drug-related crimes. Republican North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed legislation that reduces drug possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders. Louisiana recently passed reforms to address drug penalties, allowing lighter sentences based on the weight of the drug.

Democrats have long viewed criminal justice reform as a civil rights issue. The willingness of Republican legislators to work with their counterparts and consider new alternatives has been driven by the failure of previous policies to reduce incarceration rates and the increasing costs of housing inmates.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the cost of housing a prisoner in California exceeds one year of tuition at Harvard University. In Louisiana, criminal justice reforms are expected to reduce the prison population by 10 percent over the next decade, saving the state over $250 million.

Given fiscal pressures, much of the new bipartisan-supported legislation aims to reduce recidivism. In Michigan and Nevada, almost one third of individuals released return to prison within three years. Nevada adopted policies designed to increase the chances of successful re-entry, joining the ranks of 38 other states that have restored voting rights to ex-offenders, and 28 others who have adopted “ban the box” policies.

Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a bill initiating a new program that provides alternatives to ex-offenders who violate parole rather than returning them to prison. In Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed legislation that expands alternatives to incarceration, including a drug court.

Both Democratic and Republican legislators recognize that successful criminal justice reforms require the provision of appropriate support to ex-offenders.

In North Dakota, the Republican-led Legislature appropriated $7.5 million to provide behavioral health services to individuals who previously committed crimes. Louisiana’s Republican lawmakers dedicated a share of expected savings realized from a lower incarceration rate to programs to rehabilitate offenders.

And new legislation in Nevada improves the ability of the state to provide “counseling, health care services, and assistance with obtaining employment” to ex-offenders.

States are modeling the ability of lawmakers to arrive at bipartisan solutions even when tackling the most controversial of issues.

We applaud their pursuit of sensible policies that seek to provide a second chance to many and rein in incarceration costs in a responsible way.

Nancy Brune, Ph.D. is executive director of the Guinn Center, a bipartisan think tank in Nevada. Daniel Hamilton, Ph.D., is dean of the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV, and a member of the Guinn Center board of directors.