Criminal Justice Reform

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Reforming our Broken Criminal Justice System

The United States incarcerates far too many of the wrong people, decimating families and costing billions. The time to reform America’s criminal justice system in a manner that best protects the public interest is long overdue.

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Since 1980, the American prison population has exploded by 790 percent. American tax payers spend roughly $80 billion a year to keep people locked away. We only have 5 percent of the global population, but we have almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Black and Latino men make up over sixty percent of America’s incarcerated population, including two out of every three jailed individuals in Texas’ 109 prisons.

Our policies lead to mass incarceration of the poor and minorities. The status quo puts too much emphasis on punishment and far too little on rehabilitation. We strip former prisoners of the ability to vote or get a job once they’ve paid their debt to society.

Much like my time in the military, I intend to leave no one behind. We must focus on opportunity for all if we want to limit the harmful effect mass incarceration has on families and communities.

Keeping People Out of Jail through Specialty Courts

It sounds too easy, but the best way to lower the incarceration numbers is to keep people out of jail. Many of those that touch the criminal justice system have mental health or substance abuse issues. Some estimates suggest half of the prison population some kind of mental health issue. Meanwhile, the US makes over 1 million drug arrests each year, and drug possession makes up 6 times the number of arrests as drug sales. Fully 1 in 5 incarcerated individuals are in prison because of a drug offense.

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Courts that address specific root causes of repeated offenses, such as drug and mental health courts, are successful in keeping non-violent offenders out of prison when treatment is appropriate. Drug courts are increasingly utilized to the point where now there are over 3000 such courts in the nation. Treatment for non-violent drug offenders yields lower spending and higher economic gains all while attempting to rehabilitate people in need of help.

We need to continue to expand these courts and provide them with the funding necessary to keep those in need of help out of prison. Increased funding for drug rehabilitation and monitoring in these courts can go a long way in fixing our problems with mass incarceration. When I make it to Washington, I will make it a priority to make sure that funding for these vital services flows and that the overzealous nature of the Jeff Sessions Justice Department are held in check.

The Less Fortunate Shouldn’t Suffer Harsher Penalties

The US system of using money for bail disproportionately harms the poor. Of all the people being held in local jails throughout the country, roughly 70 percent have yet to be convicted of any crime. In fact, most of the growth in jails over the past 15 years is from those who are not yet convicted of any crime. This is largely due to those individuals’ inability to access the necessary funds.

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Think about that: it is possible that two people accused of a crime, that pose similar risk to society are treated completely differently depending on how much money they have. Such a system cannot be said to value the rights of those who are innocent until proven guilty.

Efforts are underway throughout the US to solve this problem and I support their implementation. First, individuals should not be jailed simply for failure to pay fines and fees related to previous interactions with the criminal justice system. If a court or police force is relying on these fees to fund operations, it is up to legislatures to increase funding rather than forcing the poor. Second, the US should move from a money-based bail system to one focusing on risk assessment tools and analytics. In my time as an entrepreneur, I saw the power that data, when properly understood, has in solving problems. I propose that Congress provide the states funding so that a vast series of experiments on the proper use for risk assessment and analytics may be undertaken.

A justice system that treats the less fortunate more harshly than the fortunate cannot call itself just.

The Government Shouldn’t Be Able to Take Your Property if You Are Not Yet Convicted

Police forces across the country seize the property of people suspected of crimes, not just those convicted of a crime, through civil asset forfeiture. The police typically keep the property and use its value to pad department budgets. People who have property seized under civil asset forfeiture must bring an action to prove that the property itself was not utilized in a crime. If such an action is even brought, it is extremely costly.

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Action is already occurring in the states to curb the use of civil asset forfeiture, with some states even abolishing the practice. There is even a bipartisan effort in Congress to rein in the excesses of asset forfeiture by federal law enforcement. I support the movement to end the practice of seizing a citizen’s property without a conviction. This is a rare issue where it seems that the two parties can work together on a common goal. I look forward to lending my voice to these efforts.

Private Prison are Contrary to American Ideals

The use of private prisons grew in recent years as legislatures looked for ways to cut funding even in the face of a growing prison population. As of now, 18 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated in private prisons. Texas leads all states with the most prisoners in private prisons.

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Justice cannot be done if it is by profit motive. Private prisons are often cheaper than government owned facilities, but that comes at a cost. The profit motive of these companies leads to perverse results. Private prison executives lobby legislatures to send them more prisoners and to create environments that lead to less rehabilitation and higher recidivism. The purpose of America’s system should be less crime and fewer criminals, not economic incentives to increase both. Also, the lower expenditures for private prisons are often related to lower staffing and compensation resulting in poorly managed facilities.

The proliferation of private prisons is also tied to the immigration problems created by the Trump administration. Private facilities hold a large proportion of individuals caught up in the administration’s punitive immigration war. The same problems created by private prisons in the domestic criminal context apply just as much to the immigration context. Lobbying that leads to a demand for more prisoners and horrid conditions are just as present. Most of the people living in these facilities don’t deserve this treatment.

As your representative, I will reign in the abuse caused by private prisons. First, I will join the push to make sure that private prisons are held to the same standards as government owned facilities. Senator Cardin and Representative Lee introduced the Private Prison Information Act to make sure that private prisons are held to the same information sharing and record keeping practices as federal prisons. Second, I will push for legislation mandating that protections are placed within federal contracts with these companies so that they are held to the highest standards.

Abolish Mandatory Minimums

In the height of the drug scare during the 1980’s, Congress passed additional mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. This policy led to harsher sentences on minorities and the poor as a result of Congress binding the hands of courts to impose unique judgements appropriate to each case. No policy that leads to inequitable sentences depending on race or income can be just.

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The Trump administration is rolling back the small steps the federal government has taken up until now. Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charges, overturning an Obama administration direction. The Trump administration does not value justice as others do. They believe that the past 30 years of experience and research into the brutal effects of mandatory minimums simply did not happen.

In fact, the Sessions DOJ is so hellbent on maintaining their preferred order, they would send people that served their time and were released back to jail. They are doing so right now with Matthew Charles, a man that was deemed by a federal judge to qualify for a reduced sentence given the tremendous reforms undertaken while imprisoned. They don’t see reformed criminals, only criminals.

We must continue to move forward, not back. I intend to strip mandatory minimums from our federal laws and return the discretion to sentence criminals back to the courts.

Smooth the Transition for Those That Paid Their Debt

Former prisoners have a difficult time reintegrating into society. Their family structures were altered as a result of their incarceration. Many lack the necessary skills to find work. Even if they do have the necessary skills, employers are hesitant to hire former prisoners. Releasing offenders back into society without those skills and support systems just results in more crime. We must do better for them, and for us.

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Previous legislation provided federal funding to the states to test different programs meant to ease reentry into society. We must build on the successful results brought about by these programs and expand their use. Particularly, we must build robust education and vocational training programs for current prisoners to prepare them for the outside. Analyses show that for every $1 spent on prison education yields $4 to $5 decrease in incarceration costs through reduced recidivism.

But, training is not enough if there are no jobs and no employers willing to hire ex-prisoners. We must incentivize employers to participate in reentry activities. I’ve built businesses and I’ve lead businesses. I can tell you that a businessperson is completely willing to hire someone who was previously incarcerated if they have the skills and the drive to do the work.

As important as it is to train prisoners and find job opportunities, we need to admit to ourselves that to truly reform people, they need to be able to participate in civic society. States that continue to deny the right to vote to former felons only exacerbate the “othering” of people that need to be brought back into the fold. Voting is the fundamental right of all citizens. That right must be protected at all costs.

Increased Opportunity for All is the Best Way to Limit Crime

No, we can’t stop all crime. But, we can limit it by increasing the opportunity available to all those who might otherwise get dragged into criminal actions. Policies that create jobs, provide health care to those in need, and expand education will always be the best ways to limit crime. Republicans would warehouse folks rather than creating an environment where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

I intend to stand for all, I intend to leave no one behind.