Time to set politics aside to move ahead on criminal justice reform

Time to set politics aside to move ahead on criminal justice reform
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More than 650,000 people, equivalent to the population of Memphis, Tennessee, are released from federal and state prisons every year. More than 75 percent of them will be behind bars again within five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In recent years, consensus has been growing among policymakers in both parties that our practice of “warehousing” prisoners is contributing to the perpetuation of criminal behavior in the United States, which in turn devastates families and imposes significant costs on all Americans. So, in a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress has begun to take steps to address America’s prison problem. Unfortunately, however, politics in Washington threatens to halt the progress.

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The First Step Act (FSA), passed in the House of Representatives with a bipartisan group of cosponsors including Republicans Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsImmigration overhaul on life support in the House Time to set politics aside to move ahead on criminal justice reform Don’t kick the can down the road on prison reform — now is the time for change MORE and Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Dramatic battle looms after Kennedy’s retirement Immigration overhaul on life support in the House Vulnerable House GOP leader takes lead on family separations bill MORE and Democrats Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesMembers of Congress weigh in on the great 4th of July debate: Hot dogs or hamburgers Dem generation gap widens Crowley stunner sets off new scramble among House Dems MORE and Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksNew Dem star to rattle DC establishment Proxy advisors do need to be regulated Dems near decision on superdelegates MORE, introduces federal prison reforms to help ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into work and society. While federal prisoners represent less than 20 percent of the U.S. prison population, the bill provides a good model for state prison reform as well.

Unfortunately, disagreement over sentencing reform is threatening to derail Senate passage of the FSA. Some progressive Democrats are insisting on adding it to the legislation, while a number of conservative Republicans say they will block the bill if they do. The Trump administration finds itself on both sides of the issue with the White House favoring sentencing reform and the attorney general opposing it.

Allowing this stalemate to prevail would affect the 80,000 or so men and women who are released from federal prison each year. Prisons need to move from a warehousing model to one that focuses on improving the odds of success for released prisoners. The FSA seeks to achieve this through practices that have demonstrated positive outcomes.

Research suggests that inmates enrolled in effective programs before and after their release from prison have improved employment prospects, and a lower risk of recidivism. Our American Enterprise Institute colleague, Grant Duwe, who is director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found that participation in a proven program lowers the rate of recidivism by 12 percent, and participation in two effective programs lowers it by 26 percent. Duwe has also calculated a $4 return on investment for every $1 spent on helpful programs.

The FSA would direct the attorney general to incorporate such evidence-based practices into federal prison programs. The bill would also require the development of a system to classify offenders by risk category and provide guidelines for developing specific plans for rehabilitation. Studies have demonstrated that education, work, visitation, treatment, and some social programming improve post-release employment and, in some cases, lower recidivism. The fact that FSA policies attempt to increase the participation of inmates in programs customized to their particular needs is a step in the right direction.

The proposed FSA legislation also takes into account that in-prison work experience has been shown to have a significant impact in reducing recidivism. In the past, 25 percent of federal inmates worked in prison industries. Since 2007, that figure has fallen to less than 8 percent, a troubling decline. The bill is also meant to provide more opportunities to work in prison by expanding markets for prison-produced goods.

The FSA provisions include proven time reduction incentives to modify prisoner values and behavior. Prisoners will be able to earn up to 10 days of “time credits” for every 30 days during which they successfully complete programs, with more generous credits for lower-risk offenders. These incentives are critical for a positive outcome. They reflect the consensus in modern effective rehabilitation practice that persistence in such activities leads to positive changes and serves as a leading indicator of an offender’s commitment to reform.

The length of prison sentences is also an important matter. Congress and the president need to continue to work toward reforms that serve the twin goals of justice and rehabilitation. Congress is moving in the right direction by creating new opportunities in the federal prison system to develop and test innovative approaches to prevent recidivism. We have a long way to go in putting in place an effective plan to address the nation’s challenges of crime, incarceration and rehabilitation. But, as with so many things, the first step is often the most important.

Brent Orrell is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Ryan Streeter is director of domestic policy at American Enterprise Institute.