By Mike Fitzpatrick
When President Obama addressed the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia recently, he highlighted the need for criminal justice reform - a message with a surprisingly large support base in Washington and state capitals around the nation.
Too often, issues are labeled by party: Republicans care about this; Democrats care about that. But as someone who is bridging the gap between right and left, I know there is more that unites us than divides us on the big issues - including the very type of reform the president mentioned.
Over the last 30 years, the federal imprisonment rate has soared more than 500 percent, and we're spending about $7 billion annually just on our prison system. That's simply unsustainable, and it requires Congress to consider if we're on the right path.
Meanwhile, from New York to Texas, states have led the way on criminal justice reform efforts - reducing both crime and imprisonment rates in the process. The laboratories of democracy are applying 21st-century solutions to the correctional challenges we face and, in doing so, finding new ways to protect public safety while containing costs and preventing further growth in government programs.
While the federal government has been slow to respond, there is momentum in the capital to follow the states' example. Nowhere is that more clear than in the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act (H.R. 2944).
The bill boasts support from both congressional Republicans and Democrats, and it's backed by individuals and groups as diverse as the NAACP, the Police Foundation, the ACLU, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It's easy to see why:
By applying data-driven criminal justice reform lessons learned at the state level to action at the federal level, this legislation addresses head-on the expanding costs to taxpayers and often disproportionate application of justice in our current system.
The SAFE Justice Act comprises dozens of reforms that are rooted in the growing body of research on reducing recidivism, containing costs, and truly addressing crime. Included are efforts to:
Curtail overcriminalization by protecting against wrongful convictions; create procedures to simplify charging and safely reduce pretrial detention; and eliminate federal criminal penalties for simple drug possession in state jurisdictions.
Increase evidence-based sentencing alternatives by promoting greater use of probation for low-level offenders and encouraging districts to open drug, veteran, mental-health, and other problem-solving courts.
Concentrate prison space on violent and career offenders by putting a higher premium on apprehending and convicting higher-level drug traffickers and criminals.
Reduce recidivism by changing the culture inside prison and encouraging more inmate participation in individualized case plans designed to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
Increase transparency and accountability by requiring federal agencies to report on corrections populations and recidivism rates, among other indicators, and directing prison savings toward strengthening safety measures for law enforcement.
There is a serious, bipartisan appetite to address this issue right now - in both Congress and the White House. Criminal justice reform represents a major area of agreement with the potential for serious changes in how our government addresses crime and public safety, and how we direct taxpayer resources to address these goals. Now is the time to act.