Small steps for prison reform, big steps for fragile communities
© Getty Images

My participation in the White House summit on prison reform on May 18 has left me encouraged by this administration’s recently narrowed focus on evidence-based policies in such a key issue area. Specifically, the policies supported are those that research suggests will provide a greater chance of success for people re-entering society after incarceration, projecting to reduce recidivism rates over the next five years from the current average of 75 percent.

The particular policies under consideration — including incentivizing nonviolent criminals to earn good behavior credits and placing inmates at facilities closer to their hometown support networks — are not the only ones with evidence of traction. Yet they are nonetheless a positive starting place deserving of our attention and support. Holding out for the uncertain odds of something better and broader means using as political gambling chips the precious todays and tomorrows of the nonviolent offenders who are working honestly toward their second chance.


The issue of prison reform is particularly important to my team at the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO), where our mission is to move people living in fragile communities from promise to prosperity. We do this in part by investing in student and faculty researchers at historically black colleges and universities who support our alternative approach to economic and social issues: first listening to and then empowering people living in these fragile communities to design solutions that work best for them.

One such listening effort was recently completed by our partners at Gallup. Summarized in the inaugural “State of Opportunity in America” report, this first-of-its-kind study used one-on-one interviews and a representative, nationwide survey of 6,230 Americans to explore the many barriers to upward mobility that persist among our most vulnerable populations.

On the topic of criminal justice, some of the findings from this study were surprising. For example, only 5 percent of respondents would prefer a reduced police presence in their communities. Black and Hispanic respondents showed higher support for police patrolling than did white respondents — by 14 and 9 percentage points, respectively. 

Less surprising was that a full 84 percent of fragile-community members would prefer to see more resources spent on the underlying factors contributing to crime than on ramping up law enforcement efforts. These factors include unemployment, health problems, food insecurity and low-quality education — all topics probed further in the study. This strong preference for solutions that go beyond the justice system reinforces a related finding, that 23 percent of respondents feel that “people like them” do not receive equal treatment by local police (rising to 35 percent among black respondents).

Improving the way our laws are applied, enforced and adjudicated in fragile communities is an important goal, worthy of our most spirited pursuit over the long term. Similarly, reducing the stigma associated with incarceration — particularly among hiring managers and their stakeholders — is a critical piece of the puzzle. Yet our pursuit of these long-term goals should not get in the way of our efforts to make near-term progress on a smaller scale.

The proposals put forth by both the Trump administration — with Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDemocrat calls for investigation of possible 'inappropriate influence' by Trump in border wall contract Judge temporarily halts construction of a private border wall in Texas Mueller witness linked to Trump charged in scheme to illegally funnel money to Clinton campaign MORE taking the lead — and a bipartisan group of House legislators in the proposed First Step Act represent exactly these small-scale chances for real impact. While they will not solve this generations-long problem overnight, they offer practical, near-term strategies with a potential to immediately improve the lives of real people hoping for a second chance at the American dream.

Gerard Robinson (@gerard_924) is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO). CAO supports faculty and students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other postsecondary institutions to develop research-based solutions to the most challenging issues in education, criminal justice and entrepreneurship. Our constituency is people living in fragile communities, and they are members of all races, ethnicities and religions.