Though only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, we are home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. This phenomenon has largely emerged in the years since 1980, a period during which the federal prison population has grown by nearly ten-fold.
It would be one thing if we were locking up more violent, dangerous offenders. Some people need to be taken off of the street for a long time. But we’re not. Nearly three-quarters of federal prisoners are nonviolent offenders who have no history of violence.
And we’re all paying the price for these troubling trends. Where the average American contributed $77 a year to corrections expenditures in 1980, that number jumped to $260 by 2010. When you factor in other related costs such as judicial and legal services, that number continues to grow.
As taxes on hard working Americans have increased to help fund increased spending on our prisons, there have also been fewer resources available for law enforcement, rehabilitative programs, and proven investments in children that help prevent crime in the first place. The result is a cycle of spending and incarceration that has led to more than a quarter of a trillion dollars a year from our economy going to unproductive – even counterproductive – uses.
Our country’s misguided criminal justice policies have placed an economic drag on local communities and on our nation’s global competitiveness – all while making us less, not more, safe.
The question we must ask is how we can spend less to get more.
It has become all too rare that members of Congress set aside their differences and reach across the aisle. My Republican colleague and I have done just that to introduce the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act (REDEEM) – building upon the work of leaders like Sens. Leahy, Durbin, Lee, Portman and others – to establish sensible criminal justice reforms. These much needed fixes would keep kids out of the adult system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend.
Tackling recidivism is important not only because our nation expanded the eligibility and extent of incarceration, but also because once you’re in the system and have a record it usually begins a cycle of crime. Our state and federal prison exits have become revolving doors; two of every three ex-offenders are rearrested within three years. As a recent Pew report concluded, if just 10 states cut their recidivism rates by 10 percent, it would save taxpayers $470 million a year.
Among other measures, the REDEEM Act incentivizes states to raise the age of original jurisdiction for criminal courts to 18 years old. Trying juveniles who have committed low-level crimes as adults doesn’t work. They don’t emerge from prison reformed and ready to re-integrate into a high school. The criminal record they have won’t help them get a job at a car repair shop. We need a system that treats juveniles toughly but fairly and with an eye towards a productive adulthood. For kids in the dozen states that treat 17 and even 16 year olds as adults, no longer would it be likely that getting in a scuffle at school would result in an adult record that could follow you for the rest of your life – restricting your access to a college degree, limiting your employment prospects, and increasing your likelihood to engage in further criminal activity.
This bill enhances federal juvenile record confidentiality provisions and provides for automatic expungement of records of kids who commit nonviolent crimes before they turn fifteen, and automatic sealing of records for those who commit nonviolent crimes after they turn fifteen. It will also ban the cruel and counterproductive practice of juvenile solitary confinement.
For adults, the REDEEM Act offers the first broad-based federal path to the sealing of criminal records. If you commit a nonviolent crime, you will be able to petition a court and make your case.
Furthermore, employers requesting a background check from the FBI will be provided with only relevant and accurate information thanks to provisions that will protect job applicants by improving the quality of the background check system.
To address the basic economic insecurity that can lead someone to re-offend in order to feed a child, this bill proposes to lift the ban on receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for low-level drug offenders who have paid their dues, and offers a path to reinstatement for other drug offenders who enroll in a treatment program.
Taken together, these measures will help keep kids who get into trouble out of a lifetime of crime, and will help adults who commit nonviolent crimes become more self-reliant and less likely to commit future crimes.
Every day local, state, and federal leaders are struggling with how to balance budgets, reduce our deficit, and effectively leverage precious tax dollars. When my constituents in New Jersey ask me what government can do to save them money, my answer also makes them safer, and our nation truer to its values. We must fix our broken criminal justice system.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker represents New Jersey. He is the former mayor of Newark, N.J.