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Criminal justice reform is going to be a hot topic when the state Legislature reconvenes next year. We operate 20 state prisons with a population exceeding 17,000, and each inmate costs taxpayers $22,000--quite a bit more than we spend on each student in K-12. And we're likely to need another two or three prisons over the next decade, at a cost of up to $1 billion.

So if our U.S. senators think this issue isn't important to Arkansans, they're not paying attention.

Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman don't have a vote on state prison reforms, but they have a chance to do something right now about the federal criminal justice system.

The FIRST STEP Act passed the U.S. House in May by an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin. It has languished since in the Senate. Now, with the 115th Congress headed toward its conclusion, senators need to bring this bill to the floor, pass it and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Here's why.

A recent poll showed that 70 percent of Americans support overhauling the criminal justice system to place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. That's what the FIRST STEP Act is about.

The more opportunities former offenders have when they are released, the less likely they are to re-offend. That means less crime, safer communities, and less of a burden on the taxpayers who are paying for it all.

About 2 million Americans are behind bars across all levels of our criminal justice system; almost all of them, 95 percent, will eventually be released. It's only common sense that we do everything in our power to ensure that these men and women have the skills they'll need to succeed when they return to their communities.

How do we do that? Research and real-life experience show that vocational training coupled with mental health and substance abuse treatment lead to significant reductions in recidivism rates.

FIRST STEP would use such training and treatment as incentives. Incarcerated individuals who complete them successfully would earn credit toward serving the final period of their sentences in halfway houses, under community supervision or in home confinement. Nothing is given. Everything is earned.

This is a policy already in place within the Arkansas state correctional system, where inmates can receive up to 30 days of good-time credits per month and an additional 270 days of earned-time credits each year.

The measure also includes humanitarian provisions that can help reduce recidivism, such as housing offenders within 500 miles of their families when possible, and banning the shackling of women prisoners during childbirth.

That this is not a "jailbreak" bill, as some critics have called it, is made obvious by the wide support for the measure from law enforcement.

The Fraternal Order of Police said, "we have a bill that will make our streets and neighborhoods safer, our police will be better protected and improve the ability of our criminal justice system to effectively rehabilitate offenders." The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called the measure "a significant step to advance justice." Others said it is "the first major piece of federal legislation in decades designed to curb mass re-incarceration."

But time is running out. Congress will be in session for less than another month, and Senate leadership is hesitating, even in the wake of an endorsement of the bill from President Donald Trump.

Senators need to act. We should not stand by one more day while taxpayer dollars and human potential are wasted by a system that doesn't work.

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Ryan Norris is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas.

Editorial on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: Time running out

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