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Prison reform gaining momentum: It’s fiscally conservative

(Mark Steil/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

(Mark Steil/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Criminal justice reform is looking less like a contentious issue and more like something inevitable based on financial reality.

The number of American imprisoned or with a criminal record, along with the aging prison population, could force a change in practice, if not a change in theory behind the causes and proper prevention of crime.

“One critical fact about the criminal justice system should give even skeptics reason to support some reforms: 95 percent of inmates in our nation’s prisons eventually will be released,” Bryant Jackson-Green, a policy analyst for the Illinois Policy Institute, wrote. “That’s more than 650,000 people each year who, if they can’t get jobs and become productive citizens, are far more likely to recidivate. Each one who commits a new crime represents not only a new public-safety threat, but also a steep cost to taxpayers as another corrections-system round kicks into gear.“

The $39 billion annual price tag of prisons could threaten state and local budgets if costs climb and former inmates can’t transition into the formal economy.

That economic argument for reform isn’t new, but it has a growing appeal. Conservatives have already argued against the death penalty based on its financial issues, and Rand Paul spoke on the economic problems that the war on drugs cause, especially for racial minorities. Though it’s less popular on the whole among conservatives, they haven’t ignored criminal justice reform.

If they want to expand on reform, conservatives have a familiar playbook: talk about opportunity and economic growth. “Research has long shown that former offenders who find stable jobs are much less likely to return to crime after release,” Jackson-Green noted.

He suggests removing unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions and reworking negligent hiring liability laws that threaten businesses with lawsuits if their employee breaks the law.

As the American public favors treatment over prosecution for illegal drug use, it’s a sign that criminal justice reform and smart policing have become relevant political topics. With a robust economy that provides opportunity, conservatives have the chance to save taxpayer money while making them safer. To forfeit the opportunity, or leave it to the Democratic Party, could drag down their success at the polls, along with the American economy.

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