NFWL Conference Speaker Hon. J.C. Watts Jr on Criminal Justice Reform

Saturday, September 12th, 2015
By J.C. Watts,  The Oklahoman

On Monday, I am honored to discuss the importance of criminal justice reform with the outstanding group of local, state and federal legislators at the National Foundation for Women Legislators (NFWL) conference in Oklahoma City. Our country’s unparalleled incarceration rates have come at a significant cost to public safety and fiscal health, and they’ve had a devastating impact on individuals, families, and communities across Oklahoma and the entire country.

As chairman of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, a congressionally mandated blue-ribbon task force on federal corrections reform, I have spent this past year focusing on reforms to our federal system by examining states that have achieved success.

Across the country, the most significant progress has been made through bipartisan collaboration. States, including traditionally “tough on crime” states such as Texas and Georgia, have led the charge in improving their justice systems by sticking to the facts and setting aside political differences. They’ve examined the causes of this incarceration crisis, its impact on public safety and public costs, and potential solutions. The resulting reforms have yielded substantial savings without increasing crime rates.

My own experience representing Oklahoma in Congress has shown me that true collaboration is about more than sponsoring legislation with members across the aisle. Collaboration also means challenging members of your own party, and challenging yourself, to think outside the box.

Consider the Fair Sentencing Act. In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and I disagreed with fellow Republican and then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s assertion that decreasing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing guidelines would jeopardize public safety. We knew reducing it was critical to ensuring an equitable criminal justice system. Now five years after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, there’s no evidence that the change in law generated new crime.

As part of the Colson task force, I am experiencing firsthand the benefits of crafting a sound, politically actionable series of criminal justice policies across philosophies and party lines. The Task Force — a diverse group of political affiliations across the state and federal system — has spent countless hours understanding the drivers of federal prison growth, listening to testimony of individuals impacted by the corrections system, discussing the perspectives of a wide array of stakeholders, and learning the details and nuances of the federal system. In recent weeks, we have considered various policy actions and discussed the ways in which our recommendations, to be delivered to Congress, the White House and the attorney general early next year, can meaningfully impact federal prison overcrowding and its associated fiscal and social costs.

Pushing for long-term, effective change is a demanding effort that requires honest discussion of our responsibility to find solutions to our current corrections crisis. While criminal justice systems are complex, increasing their positive impact on public safety, fiscal policy, and humanitarianism is a noble and worthwhile pursuit that NFWL’s group of talented legislators is well poised to address.

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