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Sens. Cruz, Cornyn Op-Ed in San Antonio Express-News: Taking Texas reform to the federal level

January 21, 2019

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) penned the following op-ed for the San Antonio Express-News highlighting the recently enacted First Step Act and its roots in Texas’ successful criminal justice reform policies.

“Just as we saw in Texas, the First Step Act will expand evidence-based drug treatment, education and faith-based programs to rehabilitate individuals who are serving their sentences,” the senators wrote. “As an incentive to complete these programs, certain nonviolent offenders will be eligible to earn time credits that will not shorten their sentences, but allow them to be completed in less restrictive custody, such as a halfway house or home confinement. Not only is this beneficial to the individual, it also equates to savings for taxpayers.”

Taking Texas reform to the federal level
San Antonio Express News
January 17, 2019
By: Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn

A little more than a decade ago, Texas prisons were bursting at the seams, a problem only exacerbated by the fact that the majority of those released from prison eventually returned. The Legislative Budget Board in Austin estimated that in the next five years, Texas would need as many as 17,000 additional beds to house the growing prison population.

In no uncertain terms, then-House Speaker Tom Craddick told then-chairman of the House Corrections Committee Jerry Madden, “Don’t build new prisons; they cost too much.”

State legislators listened and, under the leadership of then-Gov. Rick Perry, began consulting with experts to find the root of this pervasive problem and come up with solutions. The result was an innovative bill that invested $241 million in treatment programs within prisons with the goal of reducing recidivism: that is, to stop the revolving door and make sure people who get out of prison stay out of prison. Additional resources were provided for things such as drug treatment programs, education and job training for offenders. The bill also expanded halfway houses as a prison alternative and reduced the caseload of parole officers to allow for closer supervision.

In short: Texas didn’t stop being tough on crime, we just started being smart on crime, too, and the results could not be disputed. Both incarceration and crime rates dropped by double digits. Not only did this prevent the state from having to build new prisons to house additional inmates, it allowed us to close eight prisons and led to more than $3 billion in taxpayer savings. Other states were quick to notice, and we began to see similar reforms moving through legislatures in Georgia, North Carolina and other states. Despite the positive impact in Texas and other states, efforts to replicate these changes at the federal level were slow-moving.

After years of attempting to take the Texas model nationwide, we were proud to fight for the First Step Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law last month. This law borrows from many of the changes implemented by Texas more than a decade ago and applies them to the roughly 180,000 federal prisoners. 

Just as we saw in Texas, the First Step Act will expand evidence-based drug treatment, education and faith-based programs to rehabilitate individuals who are serving their sentences. As an incentive to complete these programs, certain nonviolent offenders will be eligible to earn time credits that will not shorten their sentences, but allow them to be completed in less restrictive custody, such as a halfway house or home confinement. Not only is this beneficial to the individual, it also equates to savings for taxpayers.

We worked to ensure that violent criminals are not able to earn these credits and that a low-level offense alone is not enough to qualify. The person must also be deemed low-risk, meaning he or she isn’t likely to reoffend. That determination is made using a risk-assessment tool developed by the Department of Justice, and relies on the experienced law enforcement officers and wardens who work with these individuals every day. Put simply: It’s important to rehabilitate the men and women in prison, but not at a cost to public safety. 

The First Step Act also moderates mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, including nonviolent drug offenses, which have disproportionately affected minorities. By providing judges greater discretion to make sure the penalty fits the offense, we can refocus taxpayer dollars on preventing violent crime and keeping communities safe. 

This legislation is an investment in the future of our country, and in the people who want to build better lives and earn second chances. We believe that prisons should serve as a place for rehabilitation, not just punishment. That serving time doesn’t have to mean wasting time. And that our criminal justice system can work for, not against, Texans. 

As the name of this legislation states, this will not fix every problem in our criminal justice system. This is the first step in building a smarter, more responsible federal prison system. We are proud to have supported this law and will continue working to bring smart reforms like those we’ve seen in Texas to the federal prison system.

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