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I’m in law enforcement. We’re sending too many people to federal prison.

DNA evidence led to the arrest of a North Carolina prison inmate in connection with a 26-year-old Charlotte rape case, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said in a news release Tuesday.
DNA evidence led to the arrest of a North Carolina prison inmate in connection with a 26-year-old Charlotte rape case, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said in a news release Tuesday.

North Carolina is a leader in smart justice reform, improving public safety while reducing our prison population. While states from Texas to South Carolina have done the same, it is time for a change on both state and federal levels. The current administration and congressional leaders have signaled support for combining prison reform and sentencing reform.

Now is the time for our leaders to make federal criminal justice policies consistent with our progress in North Carolina.

In 2011, North Carolina state legislators passed the Justice Reinvestment Act to modernize our sentencing laws and correctional practices. Five years later, a N.C. Department of Public Safety report showed our crime rates and prison population had each decreased by about 10 percent. The number of people sent to prison for violating probation had dropped by an incredible 65 percent.

I have seen the importance of an effective justice system through decades of experience in law enforcement. I was born and raised in North Carolina, and in 1984 I joined the Winston-Salem Police Department. A few years later, I transferred to the N.C. Department of Probation and Parole to work with high-risk offenders. After six years there, I spent the remainder of my career as a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

While investigating gangs, organized crime, money laundering, and drug trafficking, I saw my share of people who needed to be sent to prison.

But I also saw that the federal government is sending many people to prison who would be better served by rehabilitation, community-based support services, or community service. And most people we send to prison return to society after a few years—we need to prepare them for success so they don’t fall back to crime for a lack of job opportunities.

Today, we are seeing a wave of drug crime and theft due to the opioid epidemic. We must be smarter with our resources—effective treatment, not vengeance, will get us out of this crisis. Instead of cycling people who use drugs through jail and prison, we need to provide treatment, counseling, and other resources for stabilization and recovery.

Soon, an opportunity may come for the federal government to follow North Carolina on justice reform. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is willing to have a vote on President Trump’s criminal justice reform package before the end of the year.

Senators Tillis and Burr have previously supported sentencing reform, and it is important they continue to show leadership in this area. Just this week, law enforcement and Republicans gathered in the White House to hear President Trump’s formal support for the bill – which would increase prison rehabilitation services and give individuals a second chance.

I hope to see North Carolina’s U.S. senators guiding the federal government to pass prison reform that will make our communities safer.

Bobby Kimbrough was recently elected sheriff of Forsyth County. He has served in law enforcement for 32 years, with the Drug Enforcement Administration, N.C. Department of Probation and Parole, and Winston-Salem Police Department. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, judges, and prosecutors who support criminal justice solutions that will improve public safety.