Georgia’s 9th Congressional District is one of the strongest Republican bases in the country. The Cook Political Report ranked it the most conservative district in the state in 2010, and the third most conservative nationwide.
But the Representative from the district is now proposing a bipartisan bill to decrease federal recidivism rates. And his main co-sponsor is a progressive Democrat from the heart of New York City.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) proposed the Prison Reform and Redemption Act on Monday, with an equal number of Democrat and Republican co-sponsors, including the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers (D-MI). The bill would create a system to analyze a prisoner's risk of recidivism and what can be done to keep him or her from violating the law again. This could mean providing mental health services, vocational training, or addiction treatment from within the prison itself at the beginning of an individual’s period of incarceration.
The bill also allows prisoners to spend the last days of their sentences in a halfway house or home confinement to ease the transition back to society.
“Many of America’s federal prisoners will be released eventually, and this bill would help the Department of Justice to provide these men and women with the support they need to become productive neighbors. While fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers are in federal custody, we have the opportunity to help them take responsibility for their decisions and become agents of positive change in their own lives and in the lives of those around them,” Collins said in a press release.
The Attorney General would develop the final federal policy if the bill is passed, but the proposal is similar to a successful set of programs in Texas. That state’s recidivism rate dropped six points to 22.6 percent after it sponsored access to drug rehabilitation programs, saving the state an estimated $3 billion and allowing it to close its first prison in 166 years. The architect of the Texas program, criminal justice expert Tony Fabelo, told the Washington Post in 2014 that no single program or reform is responsible for the lower recidivism – it’s the patchwork of multiple approaches that can help different types of prisoners.
But Collins says that his bill “isn’t trying to mirror any state level solutions.” Instead, he says that his program just “ensures that the Bureau of Prisons is putting in place programs that have demonstrated their success. Evidence-based initiatives, so that there’s a responsible way for the person to get training and to know that we’re actually making a difference in this process.”
The bill’s leading co-sponsor is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), a progressive who represents portions of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, and a founder of the House’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus. He led an unsuccessful effort to criminalize police use of chokeholds nationwide. Jeffries thanked Collins for his “tremendous leadership” in a press statement and said “The current system strips too many Americans of their rightfully earned chance at redemption and a chance for a new life. This is a strong step in the right direction toward reducing recidivism, lowering the crime rate and stopping the wasteful spending of taxpayer money.”
Collins says he isn’t worried about working across the aisle on prison reform, since there’s nothing in his bill that conservatives wouldn’t like. “Number one, it’s not an expansion of the federal government. There’s no new departments, there’s nothing of that expanding. What we’re doing is seeing some things that are already currently being done in prison with counseling and monitoring, and we’re just expanding that out to start when a prisoner first comes in.”
The bill has support from activist groups and think tanks on the right and center. FreedomWorks, a pro-market right-wing group, said that the bill makes economic sense since high recidivism rates mean that federal taxpayers “aren’t getting a good return on their investment.” In one Department of Justice study from 2014, 76 percent of prisoners in 30 states were back in prison within five years. The Justice Action Network, a group which works for bipartisan solutions to prison-related issues, applauded the bill’s focus on preparing prisoners for a successful transition out of the prison system.
But Collins also says that the bill is bipartisan for more fundamental reasons. “It’s not liberal or conservative to believe in the worth and value of people,” Collins said.