By David Safavian and Patrick Plein

Originally Published on

Only a government program can fail a third of the time and still be allowed to operate without accountability or change.

Sound preposterous? It shouldn’t. This kind of monumental failure has plagued taxpayers for years in the form of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons.

The federal prison system is responsible for 187,186 inmates. Of those currently incarcerated, 95 percent will ultimately be released back into our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons does little to help offenders prepare to be better neighbors. The latest statistics show that nearly one-third of all ex-offenders will be convicted of another crime within eight years of release. Ultimately, the Bureau of Prisons fails in its mission to successfully rehabilitate those who run afoul of the law.

Recidivism creates new crimes and new victims, underlining the dire need for prison reform. When people re-offend, taxpayers are yet again saddled with the costs to try, convict and house these offenders. Victims suffer financial and/or personal losses. When you take into consideration the whopping $32,000 annual cost to incarcerate a prisoner, it’s clear that recidivism needs addressing.

For some, it’s easy to misdiagnose our criminal justice system as too lenient and assume we need to lock people up even longer. Facts, however, can be pesky things, and they happen to disprove this theory.

America boasts 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Out of all industrialized nations, we are the number one jailer of our own people. In 1988, the average sentence was 18 months. By 2012, that rate had doubled to almost 36 months. It’s clear that doling out more prison time is not the answer.

Study after study points to three key factors involved in keeping people from returning to prison: mental health and drug counseling; education and job training; and employment opportunities. Providing this type of programming is far less expensive than the financial ramifications of recidivism.

A number of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Louisiana, have implemented anti-recidivism programming for inmates and enacted other “smart on crime” reforms. Texas was the first state to do so a decade ago and the results were unassailable. In 2007, the Lone Star State reformed its criminal justice system to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes and rely more heavily on probation and parole. A portion of the costs saved were invested in anti-recidivism programming, victim assistance, drug treatment and increased funding focused on taking violent criminals off the streets.

The results were impressive: Texas soon cut its prison population by 19 percent. With fewer prisoners in the system, the state closed eight prisons, saving more than $2 billion. Crime rates dropped by 29 percent and the prisoner return rate dropped by 14 percent. By taking similar steps, the federal government could see some of the same benefits.

Unfortunately, not many members of Congress are willing to stand up against the status quo. Even fewer Republicans are willing to take on the prison-industrial complex in order to seek out real changes that cut costs, improve public safety and keep families together. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., however, rightly decided this is a battle worth fighting.
Earlier in the year, Collins introduced the Prison Reform and Redemption Act to create a system of risk assessments to determine what types of programming will work best to keep offenders from returning, including addiction treatment, education, and parenting classes. Individualized determinations can make a monumental difference when it comes to effective corrections programming — especially programming that saves money and keeps nonviolent criminals out of the prison system. If enacted, Collins’ bill will cut spending and make our communities safer. Simply put, it’s a common-sense solution to a costly problem that continues to plague state institutions and American taxpayers.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act is opening eyes in Washington. Conservatives across Capitol Hill are applauding the initiative and joining Collins to push the legislation to the president’s desk.

Collins’ 90 percent lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union shows that he is a strong conservative in Congress. His introduction of the Prison Reform and Redemption Act makes clear that he intends to get results. And that is something everyone can support.

David Safavian is deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. Patrick Plein is a government affairs analyst with the American Conservative Union Foundation.