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    Spring Issues Summit - Criminal Justice Reform

    New Orleans, Louisiana

    The number of Americans behind bars has more than tripled since the early 1990s. In 2015, more than 2.3 million Americans were incarcerated in local, state and federal facilities. One in every 31 Americans are in “the system,” a figure that drops to a shocking one in three for African American men between the age of 18 and 25. More than half of those in prison for more than a year suffer from serious mental illness and more than two thirds are or have at some point battled drug or alcohol addiction. The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world. And yet, in the first part of the twentieth century, the rate of violent crime was higher and perceived public safety lower than in almost all other developed countries.

    We can do better than this. That was the overwhelming message at SLLF’s 2016 Spring Issues, Summit: Criminal Justice Reform Sweeps the States last week at Loyola University in New Orleans. A distinguished faculty that included former and current legislators, former and current police officers, a state judge, a former prison warden, two think tank experts and two officials from The White House all agreed that America incarcerates too many people and has historically fallen woefully short on efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and reintegrate them back into society once they have “served their time.”

    What became immediately apparent at the summit was that this is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. It is not a liberal problem or a conservative problem. It is not limited to urban areas or rural communities. This is a national crisis that knows no political, partisan, ideological or geographic boundaries.

    More significantly and contrary to most politics of the day, support for the varied solutions also seemed to cut across partisan and ideological lines. As participants asked detailed questions about sentencing alternatives, prison reform and comprehensive re-entry programs, it was difficult if not impossible to tell Democrats from Republicans. Red state solutions became blue state solutions and visa versa. I heard a Democratic legislator from Colorado express interest in “moral rehabilitation” that has revolutionized the prison culture in a deeply Republican state. I listened to a conservative Republican passionately argue that we will never solve crime problems until we adequately address drug addiction and mental health issues.

    As states across the country get rid of mandatory sentences and begin to treat drug addicts and those with mental health illnesses as patients rather than criminals, both incarceration and criminal behavior have gone down. As states across the country have expanded job training and life skills programs in state prisons, recidivism and public safety expenditures have dropped sharply. As states across the country have offered sentencing alternatives and reentry programs, they have stopped building prisons and, in fact, closed several facilities, their rate of violent and nonviolent crimes have gone down.

    It is evident from SLLF’s 2016 Spring Issues Summit that not only can we do better, but that with innovative, creative, non-ideological evidence-based reforms, we are doing better! However, we are just at the beginning of this journey. SLLF stands ready, willing and able to help policy makers continue to reduce crime, lower incarceration rates and change lives.

    If you have questions about this program and the policy solutions proposed, please contact Thom Little at sllfthom@aol.com.