It’s Time to Rethink Prisoner Re-Entry

Coauthored with Udi Ofer of the American Civil Liberties Union. This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on May 23, 2017.

Six million, seven hundred forty-one thousand, four hundred.

That’s how many Americans are currently entangled in our criminal justice system. The-combination of the millions in state, federal and local incarceration with the millions on probation or parole means that around 2 percent of the U.S. population is somehow involved in our criminal justice system — more than the entire population of Indiana or Maryland. And this comes at a high price: Around $21,000 per year for every minimum-security prisoner and $33,000 for every maximum security prisoner.

Such numbers are not sustainable. If there is to be any lasting change to our system, people living with a criminal record must be given genuine opportunities to re-enter society.

Our current system, however, does not give this to them even after they’re released; it forces people living with a criminal record to serve a life sentence in an invisible “second prison.” Such a “life sentence” blocks the formerly incarcerated from housing (how to get a lease with no credit?), education (three in five colleges use a background check) and employment (nine out of 10 employers do the same) — in short, all the things necessary for a fresh start. Small wonder that a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that two-thirds of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years.

They were never truly released in the first place.

These realities led Prison Fellowship to declare April “Second Chances Month” – a movement solidified by U.S. Senate resolution at the end of the month. By promoting events and initiatives from 5Ks in cities to “second chance Sundays” in churches, the organization hopes to raise awareness of the “second prison” and help eradicate barriers to re-entry for the millions of men and women who want to start over.

But it is not just people living with a criminal record who are in need of help. After the anger, accusations and animosity of 2016, our entire country needs a second chance — an opportunity to band together around the things that truly unite us.

And for us at the Coalition for Public Safety, second chances for people living with a criminal record — and justice reform more broadly — is one of those things.

Founded in 2015, the Coalition brings together groups from across the political spectrum in an effort to push for systematic justice reform. We seek to address the issue for different reasons, and we leave the table with the same disagreements on other policy concerns. But we put our differences aside so as to unite to make the system fairer for everyone and to reduce the exorbitant costs of corrections through smart reform.

The fact that groups like the ACLU, NAACP and the Center for American Progress can come together to engage with groups like FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition speaks to the depth of this problem — but it also speaks to the possibility for change. And as divided as our country is right now, the majority of Americans share our attitude towards this issue.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans think that the government should help non-violent drug offenders, who constitute one in every five inmates in American prisons, by treating drug abuse like a health issue, not a crime. This is an important step towards systemic reforms.

Additionally, Pew found that 84 percent of Americans — regardless of their political affiliation — agree that incarceration is too costly and that money should be redirected to local community programs.

A clear path for significant and popular reform exists, and red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky have made great strides in helping people living with a criminal record get back on their feet. But people convicted of drug offenses still make up half of all people in federal prisons.

A small minority of leaders in Washington have realized this, and have introduced bills to help confront the issue. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) crafted legislation designed to help low and middle-risk offenders ease their transition back into society by incentivizing participation in recidivism prevention programs with a gradual reduction in sentence, known as the CORRECTIONS Act.

Just a week ago, Jared Kushner and Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) met to begin a conversation about justice reform outlook in the new administration, indicating that the White House may be willing to join the fight as well

Unfortunately, the Justice Department is moving in a different direction, and has issued a new policy seeking tougher sentencing and mandatory minimums for people arrested for drug offenses.

This runs counter to the bipartisan support for smarter sentencing practices, and we hope that the kind of cooperation we both see daily from our colleagues at the Coalition — and the significant support they find among Americans of all political persuasions — makes it clear to us that collaboration is possible, despite a slow response or even resistance from key national players.

We hope Washington will use Future Second Chances Months to take a stand and show the American people that it’s serious about promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for all.

More importantly, however, we hope Americans will take advantage of this rare point of agreement as an opportunity to renew our national dialogue. Continued disagreement and infighting only perpetuates the system that wastes taxpayer money and rips apart American families.

By extending a hand to those with whom we disagree and finding common ground, we can help people living with a criminal record take the long, hard road of redemption by having the humility to walk it ourselves.

Udi Ofer is the Deputy National Political Director of the ACLU and the Director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. Jason Pye is the director of public policy and legislative affairs for FreedomWorks. Both are partners of the Coalition for Public Safety.