States Have Been the Cultivators of Sound Criminal Justice Policies
For more than a decade, states have plainly demonstrated that prisoner reentry programs can have long-term positive impacts on communities and individuals. The federal government took note of these successful programs and enacted the FIRST STEP Act last year. The bill aims to reduce recidivism rates and give ex-offenders the opportunity to redeem themselves.
President Donald Trump is set to speak on Friday at a symposium titled “The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform”, which will be held at Benedict College in South Carolina. In April of this year, Trump spoke about how the FIRST STEP Act was already making a positive impact. “I’m thrilled to report that, since I signed the FIRST STEP Act, more than 16,000 inmates have already enrolled in drug treatment programs,” Trump said. The law enables faith-based organizations to assist in providing for reentry programs. In fact, Christian ministries such as Prison Fellowship have successfully worked with prisoners in areas such as job training and mentoring.
Reentry programs and sound criminal justice policies in South Carolina have reduced recidivism rates and made communities safer. For example, from 2009 -2016, South Carolina lowered its prison population by 14% while simultaneously lowering its crime rate by over 10%, demonstrating that innovative, smart on crime approaches promote public safety and save taxpayer dollars.
Reducing recidivism rates is an essential component to reducing crime rates. In state prisons, about 650,000 inmates are released every year and statistics demonstrate that approximately two-thirds of them will be arrested for another crime after they are released from prison. Over the last few years, other states in addition to South Carolina have undertaken efforts to provide for better reentry programs for prison inmates. In 2016, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) was the national leader among all adult education centers, prisons or otherwise, for the passing rate on the GED exam. In addition, Georgia has enacted laws that provide for various job training and drug treatment programs in its state prison facilities. According to recent crime data, since these laws were enacted Georgia’s violent crime rate has continued to fall. Furthermore, in 2007 Texas enacted measures that prioritized drug treatment, mental health, and rehabilitation for their prisoners. Three years later, Texas’ prison population declined by 15,000 inmates and probation recidivism fell by nearly 25%. By the time Governor Rick Perry had left office in January of 2015, the crime rate declined to its lowest rate since 1968. These states have provided a successful blueprint for other states to follow.
Obtaining employment is a critical component for an ex-offender attempting to reenter society. In 2018, states such as Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee, and Wyoming enacted legislation relaxing their occupational licensing restrictions. These laws allow individuals who have committed certain crimes to have the ability to re-join the workforce, enabling them to provide for themselves and their families, while positively contributing to their community. This common-sense solution offered by the states has been noted by Trump. “Americans with criminal records are unemployed at rates up to five times higher than the national average. . . I am announcing that the Second Step Act will be focused on successful re-entry and reduce unemployment for Americans with past criminal records,” Trump said in April. “When we say ‘Hire American,’ we mean all Americans, including former inmates who have paid their debt to society.”
The ALEC model Resolution in Support of Reentry Programs outlines several reasons for the importance of reentry initiatives. Namely, that the development, implementation, and execution of sound reentry policies promote public safety, reduce recidivism rates, and offer offenders second chances. The resolution calls on states to recognize the importance of prisoner reentry programs and to raise overall awareness for the success of reentry programs. In addition, the ALEC model Collateral Consequences Reduction Act allows a prisoner the right to petition a licensing board for review of their criminal record at any time for a determination of whether the individual’s criminal record will prevent them from obtaining a license. This information allows an inmate to know whether they will be able to obtain a license for a certain occupation where a license is required before they participate in a job training program for that occupation. It also aims to reduce the number of occupational licensing restrictions, which help ex-prisoners pursue employment opportunities.
Ultimately, over 95% of all individuals serving a prison sentence will be released. Criminals should certainly be punished and held accountable for their actions; however, they should also be permitted the chance to rejoin their communities after they have paid their debt to society. Elected officials at all levels of government should place substantial emphasis on public safety and allow prisoners the opportunity to participate in those programs that help ensure that they do not commit additional crimes after they have been released from prison.
Alan Clemmons serves at Representative of South Carolina’s 107th District. He is also the current National Chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council
Ronald J. Lampard serves as the Criminal Justice Task Force Director at the American Legislative Exchange Council