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America uses incarceration far too often, locking up millions of low-level, non-violent offenders for years or even decades. With the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world, we incarcerate more of our own people than any other nation. This system costs our economy $1 trillion annually, when including direct spending, lost revenue, increased welfare, and reduced productivity. Equally important, it tears apart families, and ignores the value of life and basic human dignity.

Ironically, our nation’s prison practices don’t reduce recidivism. Almost all individuals imprisoned today will eventually return to our communities. By doing little to help them re-enter society successfully, ex-offenders become more likely to return to crime. As a result, our current system wastes billions of tax dollars without making us any safer, perpetuating a destructive system that we blindly fund without demanding the same results we expect of other government programs. 

Now, a new report from FWD.us and Cornell University is shedding light on our national addiction to incarceration: nearly half of all adults – 113 million people – have had an immediate family member behind bars and 6.5 million Americans currently have a family member in jail or prison.

Here in Michigan, there are more than 64,000 residents behind bars, and rates of incarceration in our prisons and jails have grown dramatically in the last 40 years, with our pre-trial population tripling since 1978. Michigan’s incarceration rates are even higher than entire countries, like the U.K., Canada, and France. And individuals of color are grossly overrepresented in Michigan’s jails and prisons, as they are across the United States.

Time spent behind bars means missing out on work and educational opportunities. The FWD.us report finds that 2 in 3 families were unable to meet their basic needs, such as putting food on the table or doctors’ visits, while their family member was incarcerated.

The harm continues even after a loved one is released. When a parent has a criminal record, opportunities for work decrease significantly, and family income drops by 15 percent. Lost time and income become a toxic combination for families. Even more troubling, children who have a previously incarcerated parent are at higher risk of falling into crime themselves, creating an intergenerational cycle of poverty and incarceration. 

Fortunately, the criminal justice reform movement is gaining momentum. Results from these state initiatives in more than 30 states show that we can cut incarceration rates and reduce crime simultaneously. Texas, for example, has a decade of results proving that basic reforms can reduce prison populations, slow the revolving door of imprisonment, and make our neighborhoods safer. 

Using the lessons learned in states, Congress and President Trump developed a reform package to improve public safety, strengthen families, and conserve tax dollars. TheFirst Step Act was enacted with support from conservatives, liberals, cops, prosecutors, business groups, unions, religious leaders, and of course, families. Continued work at the federal and state levels will improve public safety, protect families, and help those behind bars prepare for their release and make them less likely to re-offend.

When someone is locked up, those left behind pay a price. Our criminal justice system costs too much, erects economic barriers for those leaving prison, endangers our neighborhoods and communities by driving people back into crime, and unnecessarily burdens families. It’s time to break our national addiction to over-incarceration.

David Safavian is general counsel for the American Conservative Union.

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