As someone who has witnessed firsthand the life-changing redemptive work made possible through smart-on-crime reforms passed during the Trump administration, I urge those tempted by tough-on-crime narratives to meet the people who are using their second chances to counter violence in their communities.
They will meet men such as Charles “Duke” Tanner.
The former boxer from Gary, Indiana, lost his father, mother and brother while serving a life sentence for drug offenses in a maximum security prison. All the while, he completed hundreds of hours of educational programming and was a model prisoner, so much so that his prison warden, jail guards and even the former state attorney general campaigned for his release.
Tanner returned to the community where he helps mentor young people and works to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the local community. He has started his own business to provide meaningful work to people with criminal records who might otherwise be unemployed – a key driver of recidivism.
Focus on deterrence, not longer sentences
Americans are rightly concerned about violent crime, leading to renewed cries to return to tough-on-crime policies embodied by the 1994 crime bill and to roll back smart-on-crime reforms that have reunited families and allowed the formerly incarcerated to contribute to their communities.
The tragic uptick in violent crime has many culprits – from the pandemic lockdown (which isolated people struggling with mental illness) to the closure of schools (which robbed many young Americans of a safe retreat from the streets).
Tough-on-crime rhetoric ignores progress while doing little to make communities safer or address the root causes of violence. Rather than engage in a nuanced discussion about how to solve the problems of 2022, tough-on-crime proponents are all too eager to scapegoat criminal justice reform, even in the face of compelling evidence that shows that beneficiaries of the First Step Act and other reforms have lower crime and recidivism rates than their peers.
One of the most effective strategies to mitigate violent crime is “focused deterrence,” in which police work with community leaders to hold intervention meetings with residents at high risk of encountering or perpetrating violence.
Focused deterrence was the cornerstone of Operation Ceasefire, which helped to reduce gun homicides by up to 60% in major cities at the turn of the century, according to the Department of Justice. Such a policy relies on ambassadors who can bridge the gap between law enforcement and vulnerable community members. Who better to fill that role than rehabilitated former prisoners with community credibility and a penchant for public service?
Build a bridge between police, community
Luckily, criminal justice reforms undertaken at the federal, state and local levels have shined a light on incarcerated individuals who dedicated their time to rehabilitating themselves and others. Many of those freed by the First Step Act spent decades mentoring young people in prison, staging their own organic interventions against future violence and recidivism. They continue to perform such duties in freedom. Their work within the criminal justice system should be incorporated into any serious effort to combat violent crime.
More on Policing the USA:
Breonna Taylor’s death:Federal charges show how to end police violence
Fines and fees:Criminal justice funding too often comes from those harmed
Time for change:Federal ban on marijuana use causes more harm than good
Those yearning for a return to broken-windows policing should meet Alice Marie Johnson, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 after being convicted of passing along phone messages in a Memphis drug trafficking operation. While in prison, Johnson received a certification as an electrician, a popular skills-based program for many incarcerated individuals who want to reenter society with a marketable trade. Because she was serving a life sentence, she concentrated most of her time on helping those she could, namely her fellow inmates, which is why she went on to earn certifications in hospice care and personal fitness training, and eventually became an ordained minister.
Johnson achieved all of this in 22 years while earning numerous awards for her charitable efforts and mentoring many women during her time in prison. Such work stood out to Kim Kardashian and to President Donald Trump, who granted Johnson clemency in 2018. Johnson brought the public mindedness and generosity she cultivated in prison to the outside world.
Emphasize rehabilitation, not technicalities
Those itching for tough-on-crime policies should also meet Matthew Charles, another First Step Act beneficiary.
Charles won his freedom in 2016 when he was released in the middle of a 35-year sentence from a drug dealing conviction. He spent the next two years in Nashville enjoying time with his family and serving as a model neighbor who worked to prevent others from pursuing a life of crime. That work was interrupted in 2018 when he was sent back to prison – not because he had committed a crime but because of a technical processing error that had “mistakenly” released him in 2016.
The tough-on-crime mindset ignored Charles’ obvious rehabilitation and chose mindless incarceration. He resisted the temptation toward bitterness and instead immersed himself in Bible studies, became a law clerk and used his position to mentor other prisoners until his 2019 release. He picked right back up with his efforts to serve his community as a free man.
Those interested in making a difference in the struggle against violent crime should once again embrace the doctrine of focused deterrence.
Law enforcement should work to engage First Step Act beneficiaries and others reentering society to curb violence, while policymakers should commit to reform efforts so we can identify the next Charles, Johnson or Tanner to help uplift their neighborhoods.
Ja’Ron Smith is a partner at Dentons Global Advisors, a senior fellow at Right on Crime and an adviser to Hope for Prisoners. He was the 2020 recipient of the Bipartisan Justice Award for his work in the Trump administration.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.