Law & the Courts

Trump Urges Us to Reflect on Prisoners and Redemption

A guard escorts inmates at San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, Calif., in 2012. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
A tough-on-crime president supports opportunity, not just accountability.

President Donald Trump signed Proclamation 9718 on March 30 to acknowledge April 2018 as Second Chance Month. Unlike an executive order, which gives a directive to the people working inside the government, a proclamation is a directive for those working outside the government. This proclamation provides an opportunity for “we the people” to reflect on “the black flower” of civilized society — the prison — so poetically described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Scarlet Letter.

Our nation is home to 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s inmates. We spend at least $80 billion a year on corrections, but that figure fails to capture the magnitude of incarceration in American society, the loss of productivity in the workplace, or the immense economic burden of incarceration on the families and children left behind.

From 1980 to 2015, our prison population has ballooned by more than 500 percent, with the incarcerated population for women (many of them mothers) increasing 900 percent. Today, 1.5 million people are serving their sentences inside state and federal correctional facilities and nearly 750,000 people reside in our jails. More Americans have a criminal record — 65 million people, or nearly one in four adults — than have a bachelor’s degree.

While only in its second year, the idea behind a national Second Chance Month is supported by a motley crew of conservatives and progressives. In Congress, a bipartisan coalition in the Senate and House supported a resolution to make it happen in 2017.

Advocacy groups ranging from Prison Fellowship and the Heritage Foundation to the NAACP and the ACLU are on board. Together, they held a meeting at the National Press Club to bring attention to the social stigmas and legal restrictions that affect 650,000 people who re-enter the community each year after paying their debt to society.

In the academy, scholars at historically black colleges and universities are developing research-based solutions to the most pressing educational and social-mobility issues that affect justice-involved people living in fragile communities throughout the United States — regardless of race, ethnicity, or zip code.

Numerous other colleges and universities administer prison education programs, including the dozens of colleges that participate in the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program. In fact, Congress is considering reauthorizing the use of Pell Grants to pay for college courses behind prison walls.

While the president’s opening declaration seems formulaic, the follow-up sentence is remarkable, considering the source: “Affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice that can reduce our crime rates and prison populations.” Accountability and opportunity are no longer distant cousins of criminal-justice reform.

Trump embraced “second chances” four months earlier as well, in his 2018 State of the Union address: “As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

One of Trump’s engines of opportunity includes apprenticeship programs, which he supported with an executive order on June 15, 2017. If implemented properly by federal Defense, Labor, Education, and Justice Departments, this can have a big impact on high-school students and the approximately 55,000 school-age children living in group homes or juvenile justice institutions, as well as working-age adults and the formerly incarcerated.

Trump’s rhetoric, presenting ex-prisoners as future valued citizens instead of predators and deadbeats, is especially important since law-and-order politics have colored every U.S. election since 1968. Trump referred to himself as “the law-and-order candidate” in his 2016 acceptance speech at the GOP convention.

By no means is Trump turning soft on crime. Trump remains philosophically wedded to toughness. Instead, Trump’s Second Chance Month proclamation, though seen by the public as a perfunctory part of the job as president, reflects something larger than himself. That a candidate known for harsh language and “tough on crime” sentiments would embrace redemption as a goal is significant.

This state of affairs is not by happenstance. It is an example of “we the people” influencing the national narrative about dignity versus damnation as our constitutional officers reimagine incarceration in a new era of second chances.

Gerard Robinson is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, a research and education initiative focused on empowering people living in fragile communities throughout the United States. Previously, Mr. Robinson was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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