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Criminal justice reform should set up ex-prisoners to succeed

The Statue of Justice - lady justice or Iustitia / Justitia the Roman goddess of Justice

Arizona has long operated from a tough-on-crime perspective. As someone who has worked in jails, I understand it well and I’ve subscribed to it for much of my career. I have also come to recognize that simply locking up lawbreakers is not an effective long-term solution and we must begin to view criminal justice differently if we want improved results.

Our public policies should support individuals to make positive life choices that result in successful re-entry and reduced recidivism.

Let me be clear, preserving public safety must always be our first consideration. Additionally, individuals need to be held accountable for their actions. I have met ex-felons who have shared how their time in prison was a catalyst to make a change for the better.

Bret Roberts

Bret Roberts

There will always be some who are unwilling to commit to making positive changes in their life, regardless of how much support they have. Still, ultimately, it is their responsibility.

Yet we have seen that there are many offenders, like those I’ve met, who sincerely want to become responsible and productive contributors within the community. The more we can do to support people like them, the more success we will see in reducing the number who re-offend, filling our jails and prisons.

Getting there requires a close examination of our prisoner population. What are predominate factors that contribute to their criminal activity?  That will guide what resources are essential to help support successful re-entry and lead to fewer returns to the criminal justice system.

Some things we already know. One of the biggest contributing factors to criminal activity is substance use and abuse and can be traced to drug sales, theft, burglary, robbery, violence, DUI, and more. The Department of Corrections says at least 78 percent of its inmates report a history of substance abuse, and Smart Justice ACLU reports 91 percent of inmates self-report addiction.

That the case for many who have testified in legislative hearings, saying their crimes were motivated by addiction and substance abuse.

It’s clear to me that more resources should be applied to help offenders in their effort to stay clean and sober. Doing so could result in a significant drop in recidivism.

As with substance abuse, many incarcerated individuals have some degree of pre-existing mental health needs, and by identifying and treating those needs, it is much more likely that a person will make better choices that keep them out of jail and prison.

I have witnessed firsthand how our jails and prisons have become de facto mental health treatment centers. It shouldn’t be that way.

Better data is needed to inform and educate the public and policymakers on the best ways to proceed, and so solutions can be identified and implemented.

But it’s evident that more should be done – on both the front and back ends of the criminal justice system – to address mental health needs and provide effective, sustainable treatment.  Doing so will have a significant positive impact on public safety and lead to lower rates of recidivism and incarceration.

About 95 percent of prison inmates will eventually be released from custody and will return to our communities.  They could be the person standing next to you at the grocery store or your neighbor across the street.

While always keeping public safety first in mind, we should all agree that more should be done to set them up to succeed after incarceration.

That must be the goal of any criminal justice reform.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, represents Legislative District 11.

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