I believe in law-and-order. I also believe in using facts, rather than fear, when creating policy. And, I believe in fiscal responsibility. Right now, our criminal justice system is failing us in all three camps.
The government’s most fundamental responsibility is to protect the public with basic law and order. As a governor, I know firsthand the importance of delivering justice, especially for the worst crimes in our society. I authorized 16 executions, more than any other governor in my state’s history. It was my duty and I took it seriously because each was the only decision I had made that was absolutely irrevocable. I have no tolerance for those who victimize and terrorize the innocent through crime. Ending someone’s life or separating someone from their family for 30 years is not a trivial decision — it requires caution, care, and prayerful wisdom.
However, my up-close-and-personal view has also taught me that all judicial sentencing requires close deliberation. Many of the cases that come before courtrooms are full of human emotion. These decisions impact real lives. Leaders in our country have a responsibility to evaluate sentencing policies to ensure justice. We must also take into account the broader impact these policies have on society. When it comes to criminals who will eventually be released and return to society, Americans simply cannot afford a system that is based solely on revenge. We need to re-examine our incarceration objectives. We must make these decisions with an eye toward rationality. The ultimate purpose of the system — beyond establishing guilt, assigning responsibility, delivering justice, and extending punishment — is to correct the behavior that led to the crime. Major first steps include treating drug addicts, eliminating waste, and addressing the character of our citizens and children.
An Arkansas prison official once told me that 88 percent of incarcerated inmates at his prison were there because of a drug or alcohol problem or because they committed a crime in order to get drunk or high. As he astutely observed, we do not have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem. While those who deal drugs and entice others into enslaving addictions deserve serious time and tough sentences, we lock up many nonviolent drug users, some of whom spend longer periods in prison than they would if they had committed a violent crime. Though many of the efforts to address this problem have brought some measure of sanity to the process — drug treatment as opposed to merely warehousing drug users — we need to do things differently.
We have far too many bureaucratic protocols and sentencing mandates that create career criminals. This doesn’t make our streets safer — it just makes our government more expensive. We need common-sense reforms, especially with sentencing. As my corrections director often said, “We need to quit locking up all the people that we are mad at and lock up the people that truly deserve it.” Sexual predators, violent offenders, and dangerous criminals need to be locked up, but we must provide treatment options and real rehabilitation to those who struggle with drug abuse and addiction. Throwing them in prison with a long sentence is a costly, short-sighted, irresponsible response.
Drug courts provide one example of tried and true reform. With drug courts, a nonviolent drug offender can be directed to enroll in drug treatment program with comprehensive and intensive supervision, particularly as they reenter the community. Naturally, any violation of good behavior during this period results in prison. However, if the individual successfully completes drug rehabilitation and demonstrates responsible behavior over a period of time, the court would expunge that person’s record.
When we instituted these reforms in Arkansas, we witnessed a significant drop in our recidivism rate. As an added benefit, drug court rehabilitation models, such as community based corrections, cost the state significantly less than incarceration — less than $5 a day as compared to about $45 a day. Over time, these reforms saved taxpayers millions, while also allowing and empowering offenders with the opportunity to regain, restore, and rebuild their lives.
We must reduce the waste in our criminal justice system. The United States will spend more than $80 billion on our prison system this year — with an average of $30,000 on each inmate. We will spend almost $58 billion adjudicating crime in our courts and $5.7 billion on our juvenile system. In most states, it’s less expensive to pay for a person to be in college for a year and pay full tuition, room and board, books, and spending money than for putting a person in prison for a year. I’m pretty sure we all agree that education is a better investment for taxpayers than incarceration.
But it is not just money being wasted. We are wasting human lives. I am deeply concerned about the rate at which young African-American males enter the prison system. As many African-American males have served in prison as have all whites both male and female, despite the significant population disparities between whites and blacks. While disproportionate crime rates are a factor, it is inescapable that we have a system where white kids from upper middle class families get probation and counseling, while young black kids get 108 years behind bars. Our system must have true justice and equality for all.
As a person of faith, I recognize the fragility of the human spirit. And I recognize that our justice system needs both punishment and redemption. From my time both as a governor and the job as pastor I held in my mid-20s to early 30s, I know about life-and-death, hope and pain, and crime and punishment. However, redemption is critical from both a moral and a pragmatic standpoint. After all, most of those we incarcerate for criminal and drug-related behavior will eventually rejoin society at some point in the future.
We simply cannot afford a criminal justice system where taxpayers spend billions of dollars sending small-time offenders to correctional facilities and expose them to teachers, techniques, and tools to be lifetime criminals. As governor, I signed common-sense laws that cut red tape, allowing rehabilitated persons who had committed minor crimes to become productive citizens in our society.
More importantly, we can build prisons as far as the eye can see, but without strong families to teach kids right from wrong, there will never be enough bars to hold all the criminals. Families are the building blocks of our society. Each home is a miniature civilization with authority figures, rules, and roles, and it is in that civilization that we learn how to act in the world at-large. When that civilization crumbles, then the larger society that rests on it has nothing to stand on. There will never be enough money to combat the social pathologies that result when parents do not love each other and do not raise their children properly. The ultimate reason people are in prison is their lack of personal character, as evidenced by the self-centered who will break the law and violate the moral code of society. To those who would argue that addressing the issue of character is not a function of government, I would respond that the lack of character has become a very expensive part of government. That expense is evidenced by the budget of our court systems, the department of corrections, and the law enforcement agencies, as well as the cost of stolen property and the increased insurance premiums to pay for replacing it.
It grieves me when I think of how much I would rather have those folks in a university than a penitentiary. Maybe if we had been more diligent in their growing up with education programs that appeal to them, community mentoring programs to give them examples of proper adult behavior, and the simple encouragement to believe that their lives could be better at the finish line than they were at the start, things could be different. Most of all, if we had focused on policies to help create stable families and strong fathers, we would have much less of a prison problem.
The kind of society we live in is determined by the daily decisions we make when doing the right thing is not easy or expedient. Those choices are based on a core set of principles we call character. And whether you are driving through an intersection, standing before a classroom, or running for office, character is the issue. Of course, it is never too late to change. And our criminal justice laws should recognize that.
Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.