Politics & Policy

When Prisoners Reenter Society

(File photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
New life for the federal Reentry Council points to seriousness of prison-reform effort

On an average day, more than 1,500 former inmates leave prison and reenter society. That’s more than 600,000 every year who return to their communities hoping to get a second chance. Unfortunately, far too many do not get that chance and soon end up back behind bars.

This is a moral failure on the part of society, a fiscal wasteland for governments and taxpayers, and a tragedy for the men and women who are denied a full and fair chance to participate in the American Dream.

New solutions are needed to address the recidivism crisis, a plague that results in more than three out of four former inmates’ being rearrested within five years of being released, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Fortunately, some solutions are on the way.

The White House recently sent Congress a framework for prison reform that includes overhauling the reentry process based on evidence and data-driven practices that have worked in the states. Just this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reviving the idle Federal Interagency Reentry Council, bringing it into the White House and refocusing its work on rehabilitation and reintegration.

While there are legislative remedies on the table in Congress, moving ahead with a reinvigorated Reentry Council could prove just as important and yield faster results.

When created in 2011 by Attorney General Eric Holder, the council included members from agencies that don’t seem to have a direct stake in criminal-justice reform, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Under the new structure, membership will be open to more-relevant federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Prisons — a commonsense step to make the council more effective.

Beyond personnel, emphasizing the importance of an inside-out approach to reentry that begins on Day 1 of a person’s incarceration and includes approaches such as reentry planning and continuity of mentoring would go a long way toward enhancing the success of any program the administration devises.

Other priorities should include more collaboration with the private sector and shining a spotlight on successful reforms already instituted by state, local, and tribal officials — and developing ways to emulate them at the federal level.

We know how to do these things, and we know they work.

We can get the formerly incarcerated into residential settings and similar programs earlier, subject to good behavior. We can expand access to quality education programs, drug treatment, therapy, and work programs that help prepare the 95 percent of inmates who will eventually be released to compete on the outside. And we can do more research to find out what works best and implement those best practices to ensure successful reintegration into society.

We can get the formerly incarcerated into residential settings and similar programs earlier, subject to good behavior. We can expand access to quality education programs, drug treatment, therapy, and work programs.

Safe Streets and Second Chances is a new initiative that simultaneously addresses policy reforms and enhances reentry supports. The research is directed by Florida State University scholar Carrie Pettus-Davis and the policy reforms are led by Koch Industries and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The first four pilot states are Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Florida, and Pettus-Davis will be using a randomized controlled trial of evidence-driven approaches to prepare people for release from prison and equip them with the appropriate skills for success after release to our communities. The resulting data will enable improvement of a holistic, evidence-driven model of reentry services.

Safe Streets and Second Chances hopes to be a resource and serve as a guidepost for the Reentry Council and for state officials seeking to improve their systems and, not incidentally, save their taxpayers a considerable sum of money.

In addition to supporting a rejuvenated Reentry Council, President Donald Trump has lent rhetorical support to prison reform, both in his State of the Union address and in meeting with reform advocates. The administration is also putting its money where its mouth is, proposing $739 million for reentry programs in its 2019 budget for the Bureau of Prisons, along with $48 million for the Second Chance Act Grant program. These programs fund education, job training, substance-abuse treatment, and other services.

Members of Congress from both parties are invested in these reforms and are co-sponsoring legislation to push them forward. The White House is behind them. State officials have implemented some of them and found they work. Lives are at stake. There is no reason not to get moving.

Mark Holden is the senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries and the advisory-council chairman of the new Safe Streets and Second Chances initiative.