Justice Louis Brandeis, perhaps Louisville’s greatest gift to legal thought, is also the man credited with first referring to states as “laboratories of democracy.” In a 1932 opinion, Brandeis said that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
In no area of public policy in the last decade has this been more true than in criminal justice policy. Conservative states like Texas, Kentucky, and South Carolina have adopted a myriad of reforms that prioritize public safety but also ensure fair treatment and more careful distribution of state resources.
These have included banning the shackling of women during labor and delivery, providing opportunities for inmates to learn valuable training through prison industries programs, and the use of jail credits to incentivize program participation.
All of these provisions have been included in recently passed bills here in Kentucky, and all of these are also included in the FIRST STEP Act currently being discussed in the United States Senate.
In Kentucky, during the 2017 legislative session, Sen. Whitney Westerfield championed SB 120, a prison reform and re-entry bill that focused largely on ensuring that ex-offenders would have the abilities and opportunities needed to successfully re-assimilate into society. This included allowing private industry to come inside the four walls of Kentucky’s prisons and hire inmates, providing vital training and helping inmates to develop a skill set they can use upon release. It also removed the automatic ban on ex-offenders from receiving state licensure.
Last session, Pegasus Institute partnered with Sen. Julie Raque Adams to address deficiencies facing women in the criminal justice system. Senate bill 133 banned the shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, expanded the locations that victims of domestic violence can apply for emergency protective orders, and ensured that adequate feminine hygiene products were provided for inmates in jails and prisons across the state. It also expanded the good time credit system for misdemeanants, so individuals could earn time off their sentence by completing certain programming like working towards a GED or participating in drug treatment.
Both of these bills included precautions to ensure that violent and sexual offenders couldn’t game the system and find themselves back on the streets early. In fact, Senator Adams’ bill last session also made it more difficult for judges to release homicide defendants on home incarceration and elevated attempted murder of a police officer to a violent offense.
Good criminal justice policing shouldn’t merely seek to get the most people out of prison as possible, as fast as possible, rather, it should seek to have the right people in prison for the right amount of time. This also means we must also do whatever we can to ensure that former inmates can re-enter society successfully.
Failure on this front simply isn’t an option. Public safety is the most important function of government and so that means incapacitating and deterring offenders with prison time, but it also means successfully reducing recidivism.
That’s what we’ve sought to do here in Kentucky, and so, if Congress decides to send the FIRST STEP Act to the President’s desk, it will be because it includes successful provisions from states like ours.
Specific state policy doesn’t always translate perfectly to federal policy, but as the laboratories of democracy have shown, it’s possible to reform the criminal justice system in a positive way. Doing so simply requires careful consideration, an emphasis on public safety, and a focus on proven, data driven policy changes.
Joshua H. Crawford is director of Criminal Justice Policy for the Pegasus Institute.
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