Prison reform efforts

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Breaking the congressional logjam on prison reform.

President Trump has said it’s a priority.  He’s dispatched son-in-law Jared Kushner to broker talks on Capitol Hill. Bipartisan support for bills in the House and Senate aim to fix some of what’s wrong with the nation’s prison system.

NICK EICHER, HOST: But the problem is getting a bill to the floor of either chamber for a vote.

WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.

SENGHOR: I walked out of prison with a lot of optimism despite being told by the officers that I would probably be back in six months.

JIM HENRY, REPORTER: Shaka Senghor is not the typical convicted felon faced with re-entering society after prison.

He served 19 years, much of it in solitary confinement, for killing a man in a drug deal gone bad.

Released in 2010, he now is a leading activist on prison reform, speaking out wherever he can, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Ted Talks.

He told the web portal Big Think that not only is society unwilling to give those who’ve served their time a second chance, the system fails to prepare them for success. 

SENGHOR: Prisons are doing a horrible job at preparing men and women to reenter society. When I walked out of prison, everything was about technology and digital and online and social media. Without being prepared, it basically sets a person up to return to prison because they just can’t cope with the reality of the world as it exists.

In January, President Trump held a roundtable discussion at the White House on prison reform. He heard from state officials whose reforms have outpaced the federal government. 

TRUMP: We want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison. The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point and often struggle to become self-sufficient once they exit the correctional system.

More than 2 million convicted felons are currently in the nation’s prisons, and an estimated 95 percent of them will re-enter society.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin says his state and others have had success with training and mentoring programs that prepare inmates for life in the outside world, reforms that still more states and the federal government can adopt. 

BEVIN: We’re good at removing, but we need to do more than simply removing people from society. Many are doing it well. There’s no pride of ownership in any of this. We want to steal good ideas from one another; we want the best ideas to make their way forward.

Ten years ago in Texas, state lawmakers made an about-face on a decades old practice of simply building more prisons to warehouse a growing inmate population.

They changed mandatory sentencing regulations and dramatically expanded drug treatment and halfway facilities, along with other reforms. Brooke Rollins with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. 

ROLLINS: So in Texas we changed our laws. We’ve shut eight prisons down. We’ve decreased our incarceration rate by 20%, but the most important part of all of that, is our crime rate is down 31% in the state of Texas since we undertook all of these reforms. This works.

Though not without critics, prison reform is one of the truly bipartisan issues on Capitol Hill. Many Democrats and Republicans agree the prison system isn’t working and cite the nearly two-thirds recidivism rate as proof. 

Where they disagree is on how much should be done right now. While some want to tackle a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system, including sentencing laws, a more narrow prison reform may be the only viable option in the short term.

Georgia Republican Doug Collins and New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries have introduced a House bill that would expand drug rehabilitation, job training and other services to reduce recidivism rates. The House Judiciary Committee plans to vote on the bill in early May.

Craig DeRoche with Prison Fellowship says it’s a good start because it changes the system to start treating inmates as individuals, not a class.

DEROCHE: We start bringing in programming for the people when they’re in prison to say whether it’s anger, whether it’s addiction, whether it’s fear, whether it’s jealousy, whether it’s mental illness. We’re going to have a program for that person when they repay their debt to be successful when they leave prison. That gives the person the best chance of staying free of crime.

The Collins-Jeffries bill, officially the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, would also increase access to faith-based programs to help inmates stay out of prison once released. DeRoche says it’s evidence that policy makers across the political spectrum are recognizing the importance of spiritual transformation in reducing recidivism.

DEROCHE: There’s a lot more good that we can do, and we’re really looking forward to this opportunity to growing the impact and reducing crime in our country.

As for the congressional wrangling over how much reform, DeRoche says needed changes to the overall criminal justice system such as sentencing reform can come later, but prison reform needs to come now.

DEROCHE: There’s a lot of folks already in the criminal justice system in America, a couple million. And it’s not fair to them to hold up good reforms that will affect their lives today waiting for sentencing reform.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.

(Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman) A prisoner looks out from his cell at at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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