Our prisons don't need to be finishing schools to build better criminals.
During my tenure as the U.S. attorney in Utah, I watched too many low-level offenders emerge from long prison sentences more dangerous than they were when their sentence began. After watching this pattern repeat itself again and again, I realized we need a better approach.
As a nation, we spend millions in taxpayer funds locking up low-level drug offenders who are imprisoned just as long as more senior members of the operations they serve. High-level drug traffickers represent just 14 percent of federal criminal convictions, while federal prisons are clogged with these street-level dealers who represent nearly 50 percent of all of those sentenced.
Because we do not devote enough evidence-based resources to rehabilitating these low-level criminals, roughly half of all federal drug offenders are arrested again within eight years of their release. The law enforcement community should focus on reducing that recidivism. Locking these people up and saddling them with long sentences just increases the prison population and makes our communities less safe.
I would love to see the law enforcement community address this predicament when thousands of sheriffs and police officers descend on Washington, D.C., this week for National Police Week, an annual celebration of the people who keep us safe. I would like to see these leaders in the field adopt proven policies that have been effective in reducing crime in states across the country.
I built my career as a U.S. attorney prosecuting the worst criminals — drug traffickers and other violent felons. As the top federal law enforcement official in Utah, my first priority was ensuring our work made people safer. In that vein, we devote too much attention to arrests and the subsequent prosecutions than we do to the steps we could take to help reform people when they are in prison and lower the chances they will be locked up again.
Our law enforcement agencies need more tools to keep the public safe. When I was in office, I abided by the three mandated objectives for prosecutors: punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. That last object is too often overlooked but, by rethinking our approach to low-level, nonviolent offenders, many of whom struggle with substance abuse or mental health challenges, we are adding another tool to accomplish our public safety mission.
Prisons are ill equipped to treat drug addiction or mental illness. If we want to root out the behavior behind the criminal act, we must look at proven alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts and expanded access to mental health treatment. We should also take steps to strengthen job training and rehabilitation programs in prison in an effort to break the vicious cycle that keeps many people in and out of jail. Expanding the tools available to law enforcement would ensure they have the resources to focus on the most dangerous crimes and consequential criminals. By spending more time and money investigating these serious criminals, we make our communities much safer.
We have the data to prove these smart-on-crime policies work. Successful criminal justice reforms in the states have lowered crime and recidivism rates, an important goal for those who protect and serve.
Between 2010 and 2015, 31 states have reduced their imprisonment rates and seen a drop in crime. Texas, for example, enacted reforms in 2007 that diverted cases dealing with low-level offenses to drug or mental health courts. As a result, incarceration rates fell and taxpayers saved over $2 billion. The Lone Star State now enjoys its lowest crime rates since 1968. Criminal justice reforms have produced similar results in Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia. If states, both big and small, can do this, then so can the federal system.
Anyone who thinks I am somehow soft on crime should look at the countless dangerous criminals we put away. But the tough sentences we apply to these violent felons and serious drug deals aren't the right answer for every convicted criminal. We need a smarter approach that makes the federal justice system more efficient and produces better outcomes and safer communities.
The best way to prevent people from committing new crimes is to do a better job making sure they can get their lives back on track once they leave. As members of the law enforcement community assemble this weekend, I hope criminal justice reforms are on the agenda that would produce policies that make their jobs easier and our communities safer.
Being a cop or prosecutor is tough enough. Our prisons should not make their jobs harder by producing more serious criminals.
Brett Tolman is the former U.S. attorney for the District of Utah and also served as chief counsel for crime and terrorism for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions.