In addition, prisons have become the default accommodation for people with mental illness and drug addictions, and treatment is minimal. Not surprisingly, recidivism rates are extremely high: Close to half of the people released from prison return within three years.
It's no secret that felony convictions and incarceration lead to a drop in earnings, higher unemployment, and reduced future opportunities. Unless this trend is reversed, the path from poverty to self-sufficiency will remain elusive.
Some states, including Colorado, are working to revamp their outdated justice systems. On the federal level, we are pleased to see organizations normally on opposite sides of the political spectrum — like the ACLU and Koch Industries — try to achieve true reform and consensus.
No matter our political party affiliation, our shared goals should be to improve public safety by lowering crime rates; reduce re-offending; promote personal responsibility; and use evidence-based practices during probation and parole to focus on treatment.
We seek a more victim- and community-centered process that addresses victims' needs for restitution and recovery. Our criminal justice system should align incentives with human nature and reward positive behavior and outcomes.
We should all be able to agree upon a variety of measures to fix our criminal justice system, to specifically address over-criminalization and mass incarceration while lowering costs. Ending mandatory minimum sentences and allowing judges to do their jobs is one reasonable step. Mandatory minimum sentences are knee-jerk reactions that result in long-term incarceration and expand prison budgets with no increase in public safety.
Another practical approach is the problem-solving courts we use very successfully in Colorado for drugs, mental health, family dependency/neglect and veteran trauma issues. If an offender is committed to doing the hard work to recover, let's use Drug Court and send them to rehab rather than putting them in prison and prolonging their bad habits.
Colorado funds Veterans Court using state money and federal grant money. U.S. military veterans who are eligible for the program and who suffer from disorders like PTSD, domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse can get treatment rather than be incarcerated. Trauma Courts are an effective way to repay the obligation to our veterans with significant savings and benefits both to them and to our communities.
Colorado has been a national leader in adopting restorative justice in our criminal and juvenile justice systems. Restorative justice is a process that emphasizes repairing the harm to victims and the community rather than focusing on punishment and incarceration. It is a powerful transformative process that has demonstrated recidivism rates of less than 10 percent.
The "schools-to-jail pipeline" that has criminalized in-school conduct with ineffective zero-tolerance policies has resulted in more than 100,000 students being referred to law enforcement. Reducing contact with law enforcement and using restorative justice practices will ensure our youth are given the best chance for success.
Criminal justice reform doesn't mean we are "soft on crime." It means we are being smart about not making everything a crime. We encourage our state legislators and members of Congress to work together to support these efforts.
B.J. Nikkel, a Republican from Loveland, served in the Colorado House from 2009 to 2012. State Rep. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, has served in the Colorado House since 2011.