Reforming Our Justice System Will Require Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances

06/22/2015 03:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

As bipartisan momentum for meaningful reform to our nation's criminal justice system continues growing across the country, the Coalition for Public Safety is working to unite advocates from across the political spectrum to make the system smarter, fairer and more cost effective.

As part of that effort, we launched the Fair Sentencing & Fair Chances campaign, a major national educational effort to highlight the need for fair sentencing, fair and appropriate use of incarceration, and fair opportunities when returning home - crucial components for meaningful and lasting reform.

The Fair Sentencing & Fair Chances campaign lays out a clear baseline for real bipartisan reform aimed at cutting incarceration costs, reducing recidivism, reducing jail and prison populations, and removing barriers for those reentering society to lead productive lives. The campaign addresses every step of the prison cycle: before, during and after. On the front end, not only should punishments fit the crimes committed, but on the back end, we must work to address the lifelong consequences of a criminal record, and remove barriers for Americans to turn their lives around.

As the nation is increasingly focused on the need for systemic reform, the Coalition and its partners, from across the political spectrum, believe we are on the cusp of meaningful change, through fair sentencing and fair chances.

Fair Sentencing: Let the punishment fit the crime committed.

The U.S. has five percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prison population; since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by almost tenfold, and the state prison population has quadrupled. American taxpayers spend $80 billion each year for jails and prisons to keep this bloated and inefficient system afloat.

Currently, about 2.3 million American adults are incarcerated in prisons nationwide. That means more than 1 in 100 adults is now behind bars in America, by far the highest rate of any nation. Based on most recent statistics, nearly half of the population behind bars in state prisons is serving time for non-violent offenses.

Sentencing reform will help to reverse these devastating trends and move us closer to goals of reducing recidivism, cutting costs, safely reducing the federal prison population and freeing up resources to tackle the most serious challenges to our public safety.

Reducing mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders is a key element of reform. In a 2014 study, the National Academy of Sciences - an independent, nonpartisan research body - found that mandatory minimum sentences went too far, concluding, "The incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best. Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation." Reducing mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses and increasing access to mental health care, effective substance abuse treatment, education, and job training for people in prison and for formerly incarcerated individuals will put us on a path to reducing recidivism rates and further improving public safety.

Reduced prison sentences for drug offenses can also achieve cost savings. In Texas, for example, funding alternatives to incarceration have allowed the state to produce over $3 billion in savings over the last decade, including the closure of three prisons, all while keeping crime at the lowest rate since 1968.

Additionally, expanding access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment, education and job training for people in prison can create pathways for citizens to lead productive lives and reduce the likelihood of re-offending and re-entering prison.

But what happens after prison is just as important as what happens before it.

Fair Chances: Addressing the lifelong consequences of a criminal record.

One in three Americans -- as many as 100 million adults -- has a criminal record. Further, 2.7 million children in America have a parent behind bars. Many of those incarcerated will exit the prison system and need to provide for themselves and their families.

Because a criminal history record creates barriers to housing, education and employment, it can often stand between another chance and another visit to prison.

We must educate and inform the public and policymakers on the critical need to reduce the impact that these collateral consequences have on people with records, expand employment and education opportunities for people with records, and seal records when appropriate to encourage rehabilitation and reformation.

It is critical that we work to break down the barriers faced by those returning home after detention or incarceration so that they may become productive citizens.

Supporting federal, state, and voluntary private business efforts to "ban the box" to prevent automatic or categorical disqualification for a job based on a person's record can help to create pathways to a second chance.

For a full overview of the Coalition's goals for the Fair Sentencing & Fair Chances campaign, at both the federal and state level, please visit the website here.

The Coalition for Public Safety is the largest national bipartisan effort working to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost effective at the federal, state and local levels. Learn more by visiting or following @publicsafety on Twitter.