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Prisoners who pay their debts to society deserve a second chance to have normal, crime-free lives

| April 27, 2018

This article by Right on Crime signatory and former Attorney General of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli originally appeared in the Daily Caller April 27th, 2018.

In a rare occurrence, Easter coincided with the first day of April this year. For hundreds of millions of Christians around the globe, the Easter holiday is celebrated as an event synonymous with redemption. Therefore, it is fitting that President Donald Trump has designated April as “Second Chance Month,” citing a need to “provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.”

One need not look far to find ample reasons for second chances. Every year across the country, over 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons, and reality paints a grim picture for their futures: around two-thirds of them are rearrested within three years. A lack of adequate programming while in prison contributes heavily to this abysmal outcome. Many other consequences that come with having a criminal conviction contribute as well—including difficulty renting, getting certain jobs, and obtaining most occupational licenses.

A revolving door of re-offense and imprisonment is unacceptable, and emblematic of the fact that root causes of criminality are not being addressed while offenders are in correctional facilities. This defeats their primary purpose: to correct criminal behavior. Implementing prison reforms would help stop this vicious cycle, reducing further victimization, improving public safety and give second chances to those who have paid their debts to society.

In simplest terms, taxpayers spend a lot of money to lock these criminals up. After that investment, don’t we want them coming out better than they went in? Of course we want them to come out as better members of society.

Enter the aptly-named Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA), authored by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia. PRRA is built upon effective reforms passed in southern red states –particularly Texas, Georgia and South Carolina (among others) — and is supported by numerous federal and state-based conservative organizations as a way to increase the likelihood of post-release success.

A major provision of PRRA would create new, evidence-based risk-and-needs assessment tools to better match prisoners with programming known to curb recidivism, including mentoring, vocational training, and work programs. “Evidence-based” means we already know it works. We’re not guessing.

PRRA also establishes pre-release custody procedures for prisoners who earn “good-time” credits for successfully completing these programs or other recidivism-reducing activities.

Expanded programming will also include new faith-based and non-profit partnerships in the mold of Texas’ Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which has provided participating prisoners with invaluable re-entry assistance and training since 2004. Three-year re-incarceration rates for PEP participants are less than one-third of the state average (and 1/7 of the national average). Reproducing this sort of outcome among federal prisoners would translate to thousands of fewer crimes annually.

Bureau of Prisons officials provide an initial opportunity, but prisoners themselves must ultimately take ownership for their actions and for their reformation. PRRA makes this possible for more people.

There have been some advocacy groups on the left which have criticized re-entry reform, believing that anything that does not include sentencing reform is hardly worth their effort — despite knowing that a consensus does not exist for such a push. If they can’t get everything at once, their idea goes, they don’t want anything at all.

But this is no way to actually govern. While sentencing policy is an important driver of prison populations, it is not the only game in town. There remain honest disagreements about how best to address punishments that don’t seem to fit the crime. Disproportionate sentences should indeed be considered, and even re-calibrated — but always while prioritizing public safety. While continuing to air out matters of lingering concern, it makes abundant sense for policymakers to pursue areas of broad agreement in the meantime.

Or leftists can throw the baby out with the bathwater. This might be a useful scheme for keeping a politically-palatable issue alive—criminal justice reform polls well—but it would give no comfort to those currently incarcerated who could benefit from prison reform but instead are held hostage to partisan posturing. Society would gain from reform, too.

We now have a window of opportunity to better help federal prisoners as they re-enter society to live as productive citizens. President Trump has repeatedly signaled his support for prison reform, and Congress has a bill ready. If leftists won’t bring their principles on criminal justice reform through to fruition, conservatives are happy to live up to their own — as they have been for the last decade out in the states.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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