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Cotton Speaks on the Senate Floor about Criminal Justice Reform

June 20, 2017

Contact: Caroline Rabbitt (202) 224-2353

Last year, a woman named Carol Denise Richardson was released from federal prison after President Obama granted her clemency. She'd been serving a life sentence for possessing and intending to distribute 50 or more grams of cocaine-on top of having an already lengthy criminal record. But she hadn't done anything specifically violent, so theoretically we should've been able to release her early and see good results-at least according to the advocates of criminal leniency.

But unfortunately, nothing good has come from this decision. Now, less than a year later, Carol Richardson, is going back to prison. As part of her release, she was put on a 10-year probation, which meant she had to check in regularly with her probation officers. But she didn't. She didn't tell them she'd left her job. She didn't tell them she'd moved. She didn't even tell them she'd been arrested.

Now, her latest offense, I should say, falls somewhere short of heinous. She was arrested in Pasadena, Texas, for stealing $60 worth of laundry detergent-so she could buy drugs.

From everything I've read in the news, it seems clear that Carol Denise Richardson is not a serious violent menace to society. But it's also clear that she was not prepared to re-enter society. She still hadn't kicked her drug habit. She still couldn't keep and hold a steady job. She still couldn't meet the most basic of requirements of citizenship and basic adulthood.

But the real question is, why would she be ready? Why would we expect that of her? She never went through the rehab that could've given her a second chance at life. Instead, we just threw her into the deep end and watched her sink. And that's why I think this story is worth mentioning-because I believe it should give pause to every advocate of criminal leniency.

They like to argue that taking people out of prison both heals communities and saves money. But who was better off once Carol Richardson was released? Not her community-she committed a crime within months. Not the taxpayers-they're still paying for prison costs. And here's the thing-neither was she-she's back in prison yet again.

But sometimes the consequences are worse than this sad story-they're horrifying. Last year, a man named Wendell Callahan brutally killed his ex-girlfriend and her two young daughters. A frantic 911 call from the scene said the two girls' throats had been slit.

These murders were an atrocity, and they were completely avoidable. Wendell Callahan walked out of federal prison in August 2014 after his sentence had been reduced in accordance with revisions to the sentencing guidelines made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Callahan's original sentence should have kept him in jail until 2018. If he had been in jail instead of on the streets, a young family would be alive today.

What the Richardson case, on one hand, and the Callahan case, on the other hand, shows is two things:

First, if we're going to reform the criminal-justice system, we shouldn't focus on reducing sentences. That doesn't do all that much to help our society. Instead, we should focus on rehabilitating people while they're in prison. Whatever the length of their sentence.

They need serious help if they can ever hope to redeem themselves and, once they're out of jail, stay out for good. And we should give them that help not only because it's good for them, though it is, but because it's good for us as a society. This is why I support real reform that will make our prisons safer for inmates and corrections officers alike-and take real steps to help inmates leave their lives of crime behind once and for all.

The second lesson is this: We need to know far more than we do about how many people we release early from prison go back to a life of crime. What types of crimes do they commit? How many murders? How many robberies? How many drug arrests? Those numbers can be small or they can be large. But we need to know them to understand the full scope of our problem. And having that information will help the President decide each case as he considers when and how to uses his pardon power.

But today, the federal government doesn't even compile these data.

That is why I, along with Senators Hatch, Sessions, and Perdue, introduced a bill last year to require that the government collect and report on these numbers. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass into law.

So, I want to announce today that I intend to re-introduce the bill with a renewed sense of urgency. This is just one story afterall. We don't know how many people granted clemency are returning to crime. But that's all the more reason to start collecting more data. We need to thoroughly evaluate cold, hard evidence before we make any sweeping changes to our criminal laws.

Carol Richardson's story should warn us of the perils of letting ideology get the better of common sense. We owe it to our neighbors to keep them and their families safe. And we owe it to the Carol Richardsons of the world to give them a real, honest second chance at life, once they complete their sentence.