How to restore trust in our criminal justice system

Photo by Todd Wiseman

On a recent visit to Dallas, I met a man named James. James started experimenting with drugs in high school and became addicted to methamphetamine. He spent the next decade in and out of jail and was arrested nearly 35 times. Despite good intentions, every time he was released, he fell back into the same patterns. 

Fortunately, something changed. While incarcerated in 2001, James began attending Bible study classes offered by ROD Ministries. This time, he turned a corner. When James was released from jail, he stayed in touch with the folks from ROD Ministries, and they provided him with mentorship and a valuable support system during his recovery process.

Today, James is clean and sober, owns his own home, is married with a second child on the way and is making positive contributions to his community.

Clearly, James is a success story. But how do we repeat his success?

Texas has a reputation for being tough on crime. But our state has realized we also need to be smart on crime, because virtually everyone incarcerated in our state prisons will one day be released. So for inmates seeking help, Texas has partnered with faith-based and community organizations to provide educational opportunities and support systems to prepare them for life after prison. The goal? To help inmates get back on their feet, and to prevent them from spending years in jail as repeat offenders. 

This smart-on-crime approach is working across the state. In April, I visited the maximum security H.H. Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas, where I saw inmates participating in vocational training courses and academic classes as a part of the Trinity Prison Project. The project aims to prepare offenders for success outside of prison and reduce the risk of their reoffending. While at the Coffield Unit, I heard from retired parole officers touting the success of the project and the difference it was making in the lives of offenders. 

But we have more than just personal anecdotes to prove that being smart on crime works. Since 2011, Texas has also been able to close three prisons while seeing overall crime decrease.

In Congress, I’m working on reforms that follow our state’s lead. A few months ago, I introduced legislation with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island called the CORRECTIONS Act — the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System Act. This legislation focuses on common-sense proposals that would increase public safety, rehabilitate offenders, save taxpayers money and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and our communities.

The CORRECTIONS Act, for example, would allow eligible offenders — primarily low-risk offenders — to receive earned time credit by participating in programs designed to equip them for life outside of prison. These eligible prisoners could then use this time credit to spend the final portion of their sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.

This is important because it helps inmates learn valuable skills that can transfer to a life of civic engagement instead of returning to a life of crime. It also brings them back sooner to the families and communities who need them mostAnd, importantly, it makes financial sense: It costs about $5,000 a year to keep a low-risk prisoner in home confinement, compared with nearly $30,000 annually to keep them imprisoned. Considering that the Department of Justice spends about 30 percent of its budget on detaining federal inmates, taxpayer savings would be significant.

Of course, low-risk offenders make up just one group in the federal prison systems. That’s why full-scale reform that includes outside stakeholders is desperately needed. Another bill I support, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, would do just that. This legislation, introduced by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would provide a comprehensive review of our criminal justice system and would include unanimous recommendations to strengthen it. Most importantly, we hope the commission’s continuing dialogue will strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and our communities.

Our country must come together to reform and restore trust in our criminal justice system. This is not an easy task. But if we work together across party lines, keep our collective minds open and think outside the box, we can make significant progress. I know we can, because I’ve seen it happen in my own state.

John Cornyn

U.S. senator, R-Texas