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Mass Incarceration vs. Correction: Talking Tough vs. Actually Being...

It is an election year. That’s a beautiful thing. Or is it?

Election years give you and me–the people–an opportunity to assess the record of elected officials and voice our pleasure or displeasure via our vote.

Election years also come saturated with spin, devastating, partially true direct-mail campaigns, and the over-simplification of America’s most complex issues.

Given that reality, elected officials tend to talk tough on crime instead of actually being tough on crime.

Talking tough involves some combination of
(1) highlighting an incident where an egregious crime took place;
(2) demonizing the offender or group of possible offenders; and
(3) broadly imposing harsher sentences or more prison time for all individuals who commit a similar offense.

For example, there are scores of heartbreaking stories of homicides in Chicago. The offenders may not be known, but they might all be broadly labelled as felons or gang-bangers. The tough talk would then be, “we have to make sure that criminals and gang-bangers serve more hard prison time if they are caught with a gun.”

This tough talk makes voters think a candidate will make their communities safe--and who doesn’t want to vote for someone who will make their community safer?

As a result, elected officials are rewarded for “talking tough” at the polls, and more and more criminal justice policies are enacted that make it easier to lock more people up and lock them up for longer.

Conversely, candidates or elected officials who try to unpack our complex criminal justice system and present common-sense solutions that might actually reduce crime are branded as “soft on crime.”

The problem with this is that talking tough on crime doesn’t actually make our communities safer. In fact, despite the declining crime rate across the nation, decades of evidence clearly indicates that these talking-tough on crime policies have led to:
  1. The mass incarceration of millions of men and women.
  2. An unacceptable increase in crime in our communities.
  3. And billions more in wasteful spending.

This is what ‘talking tough’ on crime boils down to when you remove the spin and oversimplification. Can you imagine voting for a candidate who stands for any of the above?

Well, we have. We all have, and doing so has made us less safe, torn apart millions of families, and crippled our state and federal budgets, respectively.

Here are the facts. In the last few decades:

No matter what your political affiliation, we can all agree that these outcomes are unacceptable.

That’s why this year, and every other election year, instead of supporting candidates who simply “talk tough” on crime, let’s support candidates who are courageous enough to unpack our complex criminal justice system and actually be tough on crime.

The only way to be tough on crime is to enact policies that actually reduce crime and make our communities safer in both the short and the long term. Doing so prevents the unnecessary crippling of communities, keeps families together, improves our global competitiveness, and saves states millions.
Now doesn’t sound like a better electoral platform?

The good news is this we don’t have to wait to make this a reality. All lawmakers need do is invest the money already dedicated to failed policies in evidence-based policies that actually reduce crime instead.

In fact, according to the Urban Institute, in the last 10 years, 17 states pivoted from just talking tough on crime to actually being tough on crime by taking bipartisan, data-driven steps to do just that.

Below are the several ways in which states are actually being tough on crime:
  1. Increasing access to problem-solving courts (e.g. courts for offenders with drug abuse problems or mental illness).
  2. Making decisions based on risk assessment tools to assess who can finish their sentence on correctional supervision.
  3. Reducing sentence lengths for nonviolent crimes, changing mandatory minimum laws, and reclassifying offenses.
  4. Streamlining and expanded parole eligibility to shorten stays, increase access to needed treatment programs, and address delays in parole processing.
  5. Expanding “Good Time” incentives for prisoners who successfully complete anti-recidivism programs.
  6. Investing in residential substance abuse treatment programs.
  7. And measuring the progress of reforms over time to ensure accountability.  

These justice reinvestments can save states $4.7 billion over 10 years and make communities across the nation substantially safer by reducing recidivism.

Although it is tempting, and maybe even electorally beneficial, to talk tough on crime, we can’t afford any more talk. Let’s support candidates and elected officials who are courageous enough to actually fix problems in our criminal justice system so we can actually make our communities safer and save taxpayers millions this year.

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