Prison reforms attempt to tackle high recidivism rate, get former convicts hired

© Lucy Nicholson
The United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s inmates and recidivism is a growing problem ‒ one that politicians and prison-reform advocates are banding together to solve with new programs and laws designed to help prisoners after their release.

The prison population in America has ballooned since the 1980s to more than 2.4 million inmates who cost US taxpayers $80 billion a year. There’s also a high cost to society once those same prisoners are released from lockup. Within three years of getting out, 67 percent of inmates were back behind bars as repeat offenders, according to a study issued by the Bureau of Justice statistics that tracked more than 400,000 convicts.

California has the highest recidivism rate in the nation at 61 percent.

Tony Lewis, whose father is serving a life sentence for a drug crime and who specializes in professional development for the formerly incarcerated, told RT’s Lindsay France that society is stacked against felons once they’re released because they are often immediately disqualify as job candidates after being forced to reveal their criminal record as part of the application process. He believes that removing an employer’s ability to ask potential employees about past convictions could lead to reduced recidivism because it would be more realistic for former inmates to find a job. 

“We would at least have to establish a different framework where people wouldn’t just be automatically excluded because they have a felony, and there would have to be some type of rational relationship between the crime and the job that would prevent a qualified person from working at whatever employer,” he said. 

“Most times it’s like a nonviolent drug offender and these questions: Have you ever been convicted of a felony. It’s like this blanket approach,” Lewis continued. “You’re putting everybody in one basket, and it’s negatively impacting people who really want to come home and restart their lives and be parents and productive citizens, and I think people should be afforded the opportunity to do that.”

Politicians are starting to heed Lewis’ call, which has been echoed by prison-reform advocates for years.

In the Senate, Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) are pushing the REDEEM Act with broad bipartisan support. It’s a major push to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison, keep kids under 18 out of adult court, seal nonviolent records of youngsters under the age of 15, and allow adults convicted of similar crimes the same option, while creating comprehensive programs for reentry into society. They and others are also pushing the MERCY Act – a ban on solitary confinement of teens in federal lockup.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is pushing its own SAFE Justice Act, which is a bundle of small reforms taking its prison-reform cues from states using data-driven rehabilitation. It’s set to be debated on the House floor this autumn.

Law enforcement experts say: It’s about time.

“The far left wants us to stick way too much money into programs that are inefficient and ineffective and the far right doesn’t want to stick money into programs,” Diane Goldstein, an executive board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told RT. “Clearly we have to strike a balance because government does have an obligation for public safety. So let’s determine what works, not through political ideology but through science evidence, compassion and research.”

Some companies, corrections facilities, and local governments have taken the initiative in this, introducing programs to help ex-cons make the transition to working life.

Socially minded techies in Silicon Valley have launched a program called Code 7370 at nearby San Quentin State Prison where inmates have an opportunity to become computer-coding graduates capable of hitting the ground running when released. Montgomery County, Maryland has introduced a job-training center in its prison.

At Oklahoma’s El Reno Federal Correctional Institution inmates are provided with job training, college degrees and drug counseling. While prisoners expressed appreciation for those programs, they still conveyed fear and concern about how difficult the transition to the outside world was going to be when they are released, President Barack Obama said after meeting them during a visit to the facility in July. He became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. 

But access to these programs is a geographical luck of the draw.

A proposed experiment by the Obama administration will reverse the 20 year ban on prisoners receiving federal Pell Grants for a college education on a test-trial basis. The Second Chance Pell Pilot program will allow federal grants to be used to cover college tuition for inmates within five years of their release. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the program at the end of July.

The president is hoping that states will jump on the prison-reform bandwagon by passing their own reforms, on top of any that the federal government may create.

“My goal is that we start seeing some improvements at the federal level, and that we’re then able to see states across the country pick up the baton,” Obama said after his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution. “And there are already some states that are leading the way on both sentencing reform as well as prison reform. We want to make sure that we’re seeing what works and build off that.”

During a speech to a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania days before his El Reno visit, Obama called for voting rights to be restored to felons who have served their sentences, a ban on employers’ asking job candidates about past convictions, and for the reduction or discarding of mandatory minimum sentences.

Some states, such as California, had already begun instituting prison reforms before Obama shined the national spotlight on the issue. Last July, a law went into effect in California prohibiting employers from asking about or using a potential employee’s past criminal record as a factor in determining employment eligibility until after the hiring agency has determined that the applicant meets the minimum employment qualifications for the position.