Something we can agree on: lowering the US incarceration rate

James Manfre attended a conference where he saw bipartisan support for criminal justice reform.
By: 
Aug. 28, 2018

James Manfre

Guest Writer

In perhaps one of the few areas where there has been bipartisan agreement, criminal justice reform and lowering incarceration of Americans is being discussed at the federal and state level. Such disparate political actors such as Van Jones and Newt Gingrich have joined together to lobby for national action. Can you name one other topic where the Koch brothers and the NAACP are on the same side?

ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is an organization of conservative state legislators who draft and share model legislation. When I was first asked to attend the ALEC conference in New Orleans by the director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of law enforcement professionals seeking to reform the criminal justice system and lower incarceration rates nationwide, I was intrigued about the opportunity to discuss this issue in a collegial manner.

Apparently, ALEC had decided to devote a significant portion of their three-day agenda to promoting workable solutions to reducing overall incarceration.

As a former sheriff who had supported multiple diversion programs that reduced incarceration by 20% in the county while the county grew by 10% percent (actual overall crime also declined by 5%), I was encouraged by the focus of the conference.

The keynote speaker at the conference was the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, who laid out the case for prison reform. To a warm reception from the 2,000 or so conservative attendees, he stated that through diversion and rehabilitation programs Louisiana had reduced their incarceration numbers by close to 10% and reduced crime.

He believed that prison reform was not only saving taxpayers money, but was also providing additional labor resources in a tight market by keeping people out of the inmate system. As support for his position, Edwards described the efforts of conservative Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia to reduce incarceration dramatically in their states while crime fell.

He mentioned that the next day he was going to Washington to meet the President with other governors to encourage the president to endorse a federal bill to reform sentencing guidelines for non violent felony offenders.

Can you name one other topic where the Koch brothers and the NAACP are on the same side?

At the breakout sessions, there was a four-hour segment devoted to criminal justice reform ideas and initiatives. Numerous diversion programs were discussed and endorsed by the select committee. Programs such as retail theft and opioid diversion initiatives were presented to the committee. There was a strong emphasis on reducing inmate populations and creating reentry support for those leaving prison.

There is obviously much work to be done in this area. Pretrial release programs rather than bail, civil citations rather than arrests, and rehabilitation rather than incarceration must be part of this discussion.

As Barack Obama said, “A good compromise is like a good piece of music. Everyone can recognize it.” It is reassuring to hear the music of compromise in an area that has been so divisive in the past.

James Manfre served as sheriff of Flagler County from 2001 to 2004 and again from 2013 to 2016. He now practices law in Flagler County.