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Proposed prison reform act will provide ex-offenders better opportunities

| May 7, 2018

This article by executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Right on Crime signatory Tim Head originally appeared in The Hill May 7th, 2018.

Six million, seven hundred forty-one thousand, four hundred. That’s how many Americans are currently in our criminal justice system. One hundred eighty-three thousand, eight hundred fifty-four. That’s how many Americans are within our federal criminal justice system.

The large federal prison population also comes with a massive price tag. The federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has doubled to approximately $7 billion over the past decade and now constitutes roughly 25 percent of the U.S. Department of Justice’s total operating budget.

Approximately 95 percent of those state and federal prisoners are released into our communities at some point and most alarming is that nearly 50 percent will be re-arrestedfor a new crime or rearrested for supervision violations.

These numbers are not sustainable. If there is to be any lasting change to our justice system, ex-offenders must receive an opportunity to redeem themselves, find dignity and become a valued, contributing member of society.

Our current system, however, does not give this to them even after they’re released; it forces them to serve a life sentence in an invisible “second prison.” A life sentence blocks the formerly incarcerated from housing (how to get a lease with no credit?), education (three in five colleges use a background check) and employment (nine out of 10 employers do the same) — in short, all the things necessary for a fresh start. Small wonder that a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that two-thirds of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years. They were never released.

The realities of our justice system, the system that traps offenders in a cycle of incarceration, has captured the attention of many members of Congress and the White House.

President Donald J. Trump declared April “Second Chances Month,” stating, “affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice that can reduce our crime rates and prison populations, decrease burdens to the American taxpayer, and make America safer.”

On the heels of President Trump’s Second Chances Month proclamation, the ‘‘Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed 6 Safely Transitioning Every Person Act’’  (The First STEP Act) (H.R. 3356), introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.). and a group of 21 bipartisan co-sponsors, is scheduled for a vote before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee within the next few weeks.

This bipartisan legislation promotes public safety and gives people in prison access to the transformational programming they need to earn back the public’s trust and to return home as good spouses, parents and neighbors.

Crime demands accountability. It’s not a question of whether to punish wrongdoing, but for how long and for what purpose. Punishment should be proportionate to the offense and prisons should reflect the social values we expect men and women to practice upon release.

This legislation reflects these goals and will help to restore all parties impacted by crime and incarceration.

In a 2013 study conducted by Rand Corporation, researchers found that inmates who participate in academic or vocational education programs while imprisoned are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not. Employment after release was 13 percent higher among prisoners who participated in either than those who did not. Those who participated in vocational training were 28 percent more likely to be employed after release from prison than who did not receive such training.

Bottom line — correctional education programs and vocational training work.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act implement a post-sentencing risk assessment system within the federal Bureau of Prisons to determine a person’s risk of reoffending.

The Bureau of Prisons would be ordered to utilize proven recidivism reduction programs such as drug rehabilitation, education, skills training, classes on faith and work programs for all federal prisoners in partnership with non-profit and faith-based organizations.

Proven programs, and provide incentives to participate in those programs. Ultimately, prisoners could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement — such as a halfway house or home confinement — near the end of their prison sentence.

All federal prisoners who are eligible to participate and who complete one or more recidivism reduction programs receive for incentives developed by the Bureau of Prisons, such as increased telephone or visitation privileges.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act also extends compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners and requires the Bureau of Prisons to provide feminine hygiene products to female inmates and prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant prisoners — both long overdue policies.

Also, recognizing the importance of maintaining family relationships during incarceration, the legislation requires prisoners to be placed in a facility as close as practicable to the prisoner’s family residence. These provisions all serve to make our prison system more humane and more effective.

To further assist with re-entry to civil society, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to help prisoners obtain identification (including a social security card, driver’s license or other official photo identification and a birth certificate) prior to release so that they can find housing and apply for employment.

For the past several years, our organization and the entire faith community has actively supported a wide variety of federal and state initiatives to improve our criminal justice system. While there is much more we hope to see done in the future, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act is a critical step forward that will increase public safety, reduce costs, strengthen families and change lives for the better.

A clear path for significant prison reform exists and conservative-leaning states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky have made great strides in helping non-violent offenders get back on their feet and now is the time for Congress to act on reforms to reduce recidivism and restore lives.

We hope that Congress will take advantage of this rare point of agreement as an opportunity to renew our national dialogue. Continued disagreement and infighting only perpetuate the system that wastes taxpayer money and rips apart American families. We can help ex-offenders take the long, hard road of redemption by having the humility to walk it ourselves.

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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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