Debating criminal justice reforms to improve rehabilitation and lower recidivism

The calls to address prison crowding and conditions have intensified as American inmate populations have grown. Jeffrey Brown gets debate on the shifting perceptions of the criminal justice system from Bill McCollum, former attorney general of Florida, Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative, and Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation.

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    Now a look at how we punish people who commit crimes in the United States and how that might be changing.

    Jeffrey Brown has that story.


    Across the U.S., as inmate populations keep growing, calls to address prison crowding, conditions and other problems continue to be heard.

    Just this week, the Justice Department issued a scathing report on abuse of teenage inmates at New York's Riker's Island. It spoke of a — quote — "culture of violence that encouraged beatings and excessive use of solitary confinement."

    In California, state officials are under federal court orders aimed at reducing severe overcrowding of prisons. And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is pushing to shorten prison terms for many nonviolent offenders.

    On the NewsHour recently, he cited a fundamental unfairness in drug sentencing.

  • ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General:

    If you are basing a sentence on something other than the conduct of the person who was involved, and the person's record, if you're looking, for instance, at factors of what educational level the person has received, what neighborhood the person comes from…


    Which, to be clear, some states are doing already.


    They are, right. And using that as a predictor, though, of what — how likely this person, this individual, is going to be a recidivist, I'm not at all certain that I'm comfortable with that.


    The concerns have sparked bipartisan efforts.

    In the Senate, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey are focused on several issues, including drugs and racial disparities in prison.

  • SEN. RAND PAUL, R-Ky.:

    There are still some naysayers, but I think the public at large is saying, well, you know, we're not so sure drugs are right for people, but we are thinking that maybe we should rehabilitate people, that people, particularly kids, deserve a second chance. When they make mistakes, let's get them back into society and working, which makes them less likely to go back into drugs.


    Still, it's unclear if or when Congress might take action.

    So is the ground shifting on criminal justice issues?

    We look across the spectrum at problems and solutions with Bryan Stevenson, a longtime public interest lawyer and founder the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit focused on social justice and human rights. Pat Nolan is the former Republican leader of the California state assembly. He's now the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. And Bill McCollum is the former attorney general of Florida, now a lawyer in private practice.

    Welcome to all three of you.

    Bryan Stevenson, let me start with you.

    As someone working with inmates and looking at the criminal justice system, how would you define the problem that most needs addressing?

  • BRYAN STEVENSON, Equal Justice Initiative:

    Well, I think it's over-incarceration.

    We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Our prison population has grown from 300,000 in the 1970s to 2.4 million today. And we have been locked into what I call the politics of fear and anger, and not made good decisions about criminal justice, sentencing, prisons. And I think getting out of that is the real challenge.


    Pat Nolan, you're coming from a conservative, libertarian perspective. How do you identify the problem?

  • PAT NOLAN, American Conservative Union Foundation:

    I think we have overincarcerated.

    We need prisons. There are people that are very dangerous and need to be separated from the population. But you can overuse a good thing. And I think we have incarcerated a lot of people that we're not afraid of, we're just mad at, and other ways to punish them.


    We're not afraid of, we're just mad at, meaning the wrong people are in jail?


    Some of them don't belong — they need sanctions for what they did, but they don't need to be locked up. They don't pose a physical threat to the public.


    All right, we will come back to that.

    Bill McCollum, what — what doesn't work, from your perspective, and what do you want to keep?

  • BILL MCCOLLUM, Former Attorney General, Fla.:

    Well, there are problems, of course, with overcrowding and there are definitely some problems with sentences that are too mandatory in a few cases for minor offenses.

    But I think the biggest problem is the failure to address the recidivism rate, the fact we return a lot of these folks to prison again and again. We don't have good rehabilitation in those prisons. We don't profile them when they first come in as a prisoner in a state prison who have been conflicted as a felony, and then when they go back out on the street, we don't do anything to follow them or place them in jobs that they can they can

    So I think that we need to address all of these problems. It's not one problem, only overcrowding or sentencing. It's a whole combination of things in our prison system.


    Well, so try to make this a little bit more concrete.

    Let me start with you, Bryan Stevenson. What — give us an example for — of a reform, an experiment, something you have seen happening around the country or that you want to see that would address some of the problems you see.


    Well, I just want to pick up with what Mr. McCollum said.

    I totally agree with that. Most of the people that have been sent to prison have been sent to prison for low-level, nonviolent offenses. New entrants to prison are mostly people who have been sent back because we don't provide good support, management or services when we have people in custody.

    So, one of things that we have seen states do is to eliminate sending people back to prison for technical violations of probation or parole. And that's the kind of reform that has really reduced overcrowding in some places.

    I think ending some of these mandatory sentences for drug crimes and low-level nonviolent crimes can have a huge impact. And then shifting the funding — we went from $6 billion in prison spending in 1980 to $80 billion today. If we spend more of that money on services, rehabilitation, support, we can keep people out of prison for a longer period of time.


    Pat Nolan, you want to pick up on that?



    In fact, I agree with both Bryan and Mr. McCollum. The — there are 2,900 people in federal prison for simple possession, drug possession, not sales, possession. That doesn't make a lot of sense.

    On the other hand, for anybody that is in prison, if they aren't prepared to be productive when they get out, to hold a job, to support themselves and their family, we're risking more problems.

    A great program Hawaii has started called the HOPE program, the folks, they're before Judge Alm, started — a former federal prosecutor. And he says, we take our rules very seriously. And when you break them, we are going to hold you accountable. We are not going to send you to prison for six years — 48 hours. You get a chance to think over what you have done and then come back and then come before him.

    You get a chance to get back in drug treatment, stay clean. It has resulted in 50 percent lower crime rate among those going through his court, 68 percent fewer missed appointments with the probation officer, and I think 66 percent fewer dirty drug tests.

    So it's saving money. They aren't having to take up beds in prison. But it's holding them accountable. And I think that's what Mr. McCollum said. We need to follow these guys and make sure they're staying on the straight and narrow, not doing something bad again.


    Well, Bill McCollum, do you have an example that you want to give us to show — that addresses the problem you mentioned?


    Well, let me say that I served as attorney general on the clemency board in Florida.

    And I saw our cases that came up regularly. And despite the fact that I agree that if you have got simple possession, you shouldn't be incarcerated for long periods of time in state prison or federal prison, either one, most of the prisoners, by far the overwhelming majority of them, were not simple possession of drugs. They were other crimes, not always violent.

    But if you have a large enough quantity and you're dealing in drugs, you ought to have a minimum mandatory sentence, in my opinion. If you have committed a financial crime, a big enough, bad enough one, you're going to get a felony conviction and spend a couple years in prison.

    Maybe these sentences sometimes are too long, but we need to deal — and I think it's is a serious problem — with the criminals that are going to be there even after we address the — quote — "overcrowding" for the minor possession issue and change some of the laws maybe on diverting a few people.

    But because the majority at least I think in the states are not there for these simple crimes that we're talking about, they're there for more serious matters, and we need to address the rehab and what we do with these prisoners, these return prisoners, repeat offenders.


    Well, just listening to you, Mr. McCollum, I wonder, are you worried that the idea of reform can go too far?


    Yes, I am.




    I'm worried because when I was on the Crime Subcommittee and chaired it in Congress for a while, I know judges, generally speaking, were opposed to the idea of any kind of sentencing guidelines that kept their hands tied, especially minimum mandatory sentences.

    And they have gone — we have gone too far with minimum mandatories. But there's a place for them. There's a place for Jeb Bush's 10, 20, life when you have repeat offenders and they commit certain types of felonies again and again. And so I'm worried that the movement to release prisoners and to reduce sentences, to do away with minimum mandatories will take the pendulum the opposite direction and go too far.


    All right, Bryan Stevenson, you want to respond?


    Yes, I'm not so worried about that.

    Like I said, we had 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the early 1970s. The violent crime rate today in most places is about where it was in the 1960s, when we had a dramatically smaller prison population.

    I agree that we have to focus on people who are threats to public safety. We have to get them out of the society and protect the public, but we have got tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who are not in that category.

    If we treat drug addiction and drug dependency as a health care problem, rather than a criminal justice problem, I think we can actually do what Mr. McCollum is suggesting and better — provide better services for people, keep people out of jails or prisons, and not in any way undermine public safety.

    We have got a lot of space to operate, unfortunately, to reduce our prison population without increasing threats to public safety.


    Pat Nolan, where is this as a political matter? That question I asked at the top, has the ground shifted?


    Yes, it's been very interesting.

    In the last several years, many conservative leaders across the country have formed a group called Right on Crime. And they are working to implement policies that frankly get the most public safety for the public dollar. We have been stingy with other parts of government, but frankly turned a blind eye in some ways to corrections.

    And, instead, they're looking and saying, are we getting enough public safety? And so Texas led the way and by changing their laws so they didn't incarcerate those at the low level of the spectrum. They lowered the amount spent, but they didn't just put it back in the budget. They put it into programs like Mr. McCollum talked about, job training, drug treatment, mental health care.

    So, it saved the money and the lives of the low-level offenders, and put it into things that — or into rehabilitation. The key thing is they have saved over $3 billion, and the crime rate is the lowest it's been since 1968.


    And, Mr. McCollum, just in our last minute here, do you see the political ground shifting, and where is the public in all of this?


    Well, I think the public sees the crime rate down right now. And like any pendulum, it's swinging more towards a little looseness and letting more people out and doing more diversion and drug treatment.

    And that's not all bad. I'm just worried that it not go too far. Determinant sentencing or swiftness and certainty of punishment is all part of the sentencing system we have of deterrence. That's how you deter crime.

    So even if you don't have a violent crime, there are crimes out there that need to get certainty in the punishment. And we need to have them in prison. I just think we have to be careful when we talk about them not to put too many in that category. Small drug offenders, possession, yes, that could be diverted. Major crimes in theft and criminal behavior and other cases and major drug traffickers, no.


    All right. OK. Big subject, to be continued.

    Bill McCollum, Bryan Stevenson, Pat Nolan, thank you, three, all very much.


    Thank you.


    You're welcome.

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