Over the past three decades, America's federal prison population has more than quadrupled — from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today. Prison spending has increased alongside it, placing a heavy burden on American taxpayers. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 1980-2013, prison spending has increased by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable. Currently, the federal prison system consumes more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.
This redirects funding from enforcement and other criminal justice programs and reduces our system's efficiency and effectiveness. The growth in prison population and spending, plus the massive human and social costs of mass incarceration, creates an urgent need for federal criminal justice reform.
The current high incarceration rates are a result of sweeping tough-on-crime initiatives, specifically the introduction of drug mandatory minimums in the 1980s. While minimums have proved successful in some circumstances, too often low-level, non-violent individuals have been caught up in the system. Instead of considering the unique circumstances of each case, taking into account the personal and criminal history of the offender, judges are forced to comply with federally mandated minimums that lock up millions of people without discretionary judgment.
Further, the current system lacks the ability to effectively rehabilitate nonviolent offenders, leaving them without the skills, education and training to successfully reintegrate into society. A shocking 50 percent of the federal prison population has substance abuse issues, mental health issues or both. An estimated 53 percent of offenders entering prison are at or below the poverty line, and our current prison population houses a disproportionate number of African-Americans, who account for nearly 40 percent of inmates.
Our prisons have become warehouses that simply lock away offenders, rather than treating the underlying issues that brought them there. This neglect contributes to high recidivism rates and puts a revolving door on the gates of America's federal prisons.
While Congress has remained largely silent on the issue, states have embraced reform — enacting wide-ranging, evidence-based changes that both improve public safety and rein in prison costs. These state programs have succeeded by prioritizing incarceration for violent and career criminals, strengthening community supervision and adopting alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders.
For example, in 2007, Texas adopted prison reform policies. Its crime rate fell by 18 percent, while its imprisonment rate dropped by 10 percent. Similarly, in Wisconsin, after reforms were enacted, the state's crime rate fell 19 percent and the imprisonment rate fell seven percent.
The states are proving that bipartisan criminal justice reform is not only possible, but that it is working to reduce crime, decrease incarceration and lower the taxpayer burden throughout the country, all while maintaining public safety. It's time for Congress to follow suit.
Last year, Congressman Bobby Scott and I led a congressional task force to investigate over-criminalization, which examined the scope of mass incarceration, as well as evidence-based programs for reform. In June, we introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, a comprehensive bill that addresses the major drivers of the federal prison population at the front and back ends of the system.
SAFE Justice promotes targeted sentencing over a one-size-fits-all approach, curtails the ballooning number of regulatory crimes, and includes policies that more effectively change the criminal behavior of the nearly 132,000 people on federal probation and post-prison supervision. The bill, which has been endorsed by House Speaker John Boehner and boasts 36 bipartisan cosponsors, advances research-based sentencing, release and supervision policies, and will enact meaningful reforms that shadow the success seen on the state level.
Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory. It's not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible. Now is the time for criminal justice reform, and the SAFE Justice Act delivers the change necessary to enact fairness in sentencing, reduce the taxpayer burden and ensure the increased safety and prosperity of communities across the country.
Jim Sensenbrenner is the U.S. Representative for Wisconsin's 5th congressional district. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.