This is the meaningful, effective prison reform the US badly needs

This is the meaningful, effective prison reform the US badly needs
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Based on the 2018 National Update on Prisoner Recidivism, it is obvious that the United States needs prison reform at all levels — federal, state and local. The Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed an estimated 68 percent of prisoners were arrested within three years of release, 79 percent within six years, and a staggering 83 percent within 9 years of release. This perpetual re-incarceration of offenders only adds to an inescapable downward spiral of financial and social costs.  

I believe measuring law enforcement success should be not only the offenders we arrest but also the offenders we never have to “re-arrest” once they have completed their sentences. People from across political affiliations must collaborate and join the effort to urge Congress to pass vital prison reform legislation.  

As a twice-elected sheriff of Virginia’s largest sheriff’s office (Loudoun County), I see firsthand the importance of providing inmates with the opportunities they need to lead successful lives upon release. Working with inmates through mental health issues, correcting substance abuse, enlisting support groups, providing education, assisting with housing and engaging faith-based communities while teaching inmates job skills works to everyone’s benefit. This holistic approach is fiscally responsible, socially constructive and demonstrates a true sense of compassion.


We examined this approach after noticing a steady increase in recidivism — from 30 percent in 2008 to 43.75 percent in 2011 (reflected in Loudoun County’s Offender Management System).  In 2012, we began to apply our comprehensive program and, over the next five years, Loudoun County experienced a steady reduction in recidivism — from 44.24 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2017. The program we employed is similar to what the Trump administration proposes to put in action nationally with the Prison Reform and Redemption Act.

The core of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE’s proposed prison reform agenda is “expanding prison work and programs so that inmates can re-enter society with the skills to get a job.” This is especially important in a thriving economy where workers are needed more than ever. Since the length of sentence provides a yardstick for the potential development of skills inside a detention facility (the longer the sentence, the more opportunity for inmates to develop particular skill sets), the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) is able to provide only basic training and work opportunities. 

Nevertheless, we expanded our Inmate Workforce Program to allow nonviolent, minimum-custody level inmates to engage in construction, landscaping and painting. These opportunities help inmates prepare for life outside of detention while saving taxpayers money on essential state, county and local property maintenance. In 2017 alone, detainees in our Adult Detention Management Program worked more than 10,503 hours on county projects. If contracted outside (at a conservative wage of $7.25 per hour), this work would have cost taxpayers more than $76,000. Practical and efficient, our program provides inmates a greater sense of purpose, value and a positive feeling for their contribution to society.

Another key component to the prison reform effort is to improve the welfare of current and former inmates by providing mental health and substance abuse services. While addressing this at detention facilities is important, the best way to address it is long before incarceration comes into play. This means training law enforcement professionals in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) so they can de-escalate volatile situations and distinguish a mental health crisis from criminal behavior (although sometimes it’s both). 

This training enables officers and deputies to better refer problems for professional assistance, rather than engaging these individuals directly, and sometimes unnecessarily, into the criminal justice system. Many police departments and sheriffs’ offices throughout the United States have embraced CIT and experienced similar success. Today, 100 percent of Loudoun County corrections and patrol deputies with two or more years of experience are CIT-trained.

Additionally, the Adult Detention Center has a recovery housing unit that employs a multifaceted program that segregates substance abuse participants with a vested interest in sobriety. The program, known as “Loudoun Inmate Focused Treatment,” or LIFT, is administered collaboratively by LCSO personnel and Loudoun County’s Mental Health clinicians. This unit places participants on a schedule to address addiction, correct drug and alcohol dependencies and support each other, both in and out of the correction facility. The inmates produce a “Road to Recovery” quarterly newsletter that highlights success stories and treatment advisories.  

Finally, the LCSO conducts an in-house biannual community resource fair, which introduces inmates, within six months of release, to community organizations and government agency representatives by providing resources and beneficial information they will need following incarceration to successfully re-enter the community. These programs benefit inmates while engaging our community at-large. 

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Loudoun County has one of the lowest crime rates in the Washington, D.C., metro region. I believe this has to do with approaching criminal justice concerns collaboratively and applying the expertise and experience offered by government and non-governmental agencies. This integrated approach demonstrates success and reflects a much needed, bipartisan effort to provide new funding for education and rehabilitation programs. 

Utilizing these concepts can, and will, make a significant difference at all levels within our prison system — federal, state and local. Please join with me and other sheriffs to support this comprehensive legislation and make America’s prisons a safer, more secure and more productive setting.    

Michael L. Chapman is sheriff of Loudoun County, Virginia. The Sheriff’s Office serves a population of 350,000 people over 519 square miles. He previously worked for the Howard County, Maryland, Police Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.