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The criminal justice system’s top job: Breaking the cycle of crime

For half a century, policymakers across the country have largely embraced the notion that our justice system only exists to punish criminals.
This narrow view isn’t just wrong – it’s one of the gravest errors we could make. This approach has failed universally, and it took decades to realize that it was happening.
On its face, the concept makes sense. If someone breaks the law, they serve a sentence. And, to be sure, no one is disputing that lawbreakers deserve to be penalized for their actions. But the system owes far more to the people it is designed to protect, as well as those offenders who become a part of it.
{mosads}Prison sentences alone aren’t enough to deter offenders from committing crimes, and they are certainly not enough to break the cycle of crime that ensnares many — if not most — people who serve time in prison. A 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that almost 80 percent of criminals released from state prisons will be arrested for another crime within five years. Almost 60 percent will be arrested within three years and a third will be rearrested within six months.
This is known as recidivism. It has many root causes, but chief among them is the lack of opportunities for offenders to find work, support themselves and their families, and dedicate their lives to something other than crime. The cycle of crime and punishment doesn’t create better citizens and safer communities. It creates better criminals.
We know that most people who enter prison will one day be released. So why don’t we ensure that people who are released from prison are prepared to reenter free society?
The best tool against the lifelong cycle of crime is a job. Unfortunately, offenders too often leave prison with a criminal record but few skills that would lead to gainful employment. As a former state prosecutor and the deputy director of the country’s leading bipartisan criminal justice reform group, we agree that vocational skills training is a necessary component to incarceration and an extraordinarily effective way to reduce recidivism and ensure that former inmates lead productive lives.
Across the country, this approach has been proven to work. In 2016, Arizona approved a wide-ranging reentry program for nonviolent offenders, providing the opportunity to work in the community, as well as expanded education, mental health, and drug treatment resources. The program also includes employment counseling and job fairs with prospective employers — all behind prison bars.
Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, implemented a program known as “reentry court” in 2010. This innovative approach combines mentoring, substance abuse treatment, and intensive vocational training. Those participating in this program are permitted to obtain the highest level of certifications in their chosen vocation while serving their sentences. With this qualification in hand, participants then must obtain a job offer before they can be released to an intensive reentry program. Early outcomes have shown recidivism rates at a fraction of the almost 50 percent failure rate among others who exit prison in Louisiana.
And Tennessee has started to get the ball rolling on these important reforms by making it easier for those with a criminal record to obtain a certificate of employability, which increases access to employment and professional licenses.
Some observers might be surprised to find that conservatives have taken the lead in addressing this systemic problem in many states. However, criminal justice reform fits squarely within conservative principles: with smart reforms, we’re able to achieve lower crime rates, spend fewer tax dollars on government programs, and safely reduce prison populations that have been ballooning and eating through state budgets for decades.
Politics aside, our justice system should create accountability, rehabilitate those who have chosen to break the law, and remove the stigma of a criminal record for those who have paid their debt. By doing that, former offenders can more easily reintegrate into society and find opportunity in gainful employment instead of a life of crime.
That leads to better outcomes for everyone: former offenders can break the cycle of incarceration; communities enjoy lower crime rates and higher levels of safety, and states save millions and even billions of dollars in spending on their prison systems. By focusing on reentry and rehabilitation while inmates are serving their sentences, we can make a lasting impact on how our justice system prepares individuals for life after prison. Positive results are piling up across the country, and it’s time for other states and the federal government to follow suit.
Jason Emert is chairman of the Young Republican National Federation, and Jenna Moll is deputy director of the Justice Action Network.
Tags Crime Criminal justice Criminal justice reform in the United States Criminology Prison reform Recidivism

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