Keeping inmates out of prison

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, May 29th, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, prison reform.

You’ve probably heard the statistics.

The American prison population stands at 2.3 million. Meaning that with just five percent of the global population, America’s prisons house a quarter of all the prisoners in the world.

REICHARD: These statistics have made criminal-justice reform a hot topic on Capitol Hill. Both the House and the Senate are considering legislation, but big differences in approach threaten to derail reform.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has more on the conflict—and what’s at stake.

AUDIO: Sound of welding

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG: Prisoners at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield, South Dakota, are busy welding metal bars into corner joints. Welding helmets cover their faces as sparks fly.

AUDIO: Sound of sparks 

The joints are for docks the state’s Game Fish and Parks department will place in rivers and lakes.

These inmates are a part of the prison’s vocational certificate program that teaches welding, carpentry, and auto body shop skills.

Jared Hallstrom is a student in the welding program. He’s two years into a 3-year sentence. He’s used that time to work in the prison’s Braille shop, earning 40 cents an hour.

HALLSTROM: We actually write textbooks for blind people using the print copy and then we turn it into Braille. And I had to get certified in Braille before I could do that – I had to take the course to do it. And then, after we got certified, then we start production work.

Hallstrom says as he begins looking toward his release next year, he wanted a more widely marketable skill. After a rigorous test, he and 11 other inmates were admitted into the welding program.

HALLSTROM: When you leave a place like this, the two things that people are worried about more than anything are finding a place to live and finding a job and being a part of this program, I don’t have to worry about getting a job anymore.

Studies show training and education programs like this one reduce recidivism rates by 43 percent. But many prisons either don’t have them, or the programs aren’t large enough to enroll large numbers of inmates.

In a 2014 survey, the National Center for Education Statistics found only 7 percent of inmates received a certificate from a college or trade school during incarceration, while more than half said they didn’t further their education in any way.

That’s why a bipartisan bill that overwhelmingly passed the House last week has supporters cheering. It’s called the FIRST STEP Act. Representatives Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, and Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, co-sponsored the bill.

The bill’s major landmark is that it puts $50 million per year for five years into developing individualized educational, vocational training and mental health programs in the nation’s 102 federal prisons. Congressman Doug Collins said the bill’s name bears a message—this is only a first step in criminal justice reform.

COLLINS: This helps people incarcerated today. This helps those who are without hope sitting in cells today saying how can we help them get the skills they need to get back into society and not come back to jail.

The bill also allows prisoners to earn credits to end their sentences early and spend the final portion of their sentence in halfway houses or under house arrest. It mandates prisoners be placed within 500 miles of their families, helps released prisoners get identification, and it bans shackling pregnant women.

But some lawmakers say the bill is a disappointment. It doesn’t reform mandatory minimums and sentencing, aspects of the criminal justice system many agree needs the most attention. Here’s New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler.  

NADLER: Despite the bills good intentions the new incentive system for pre-released custody credits could exacerbate racial biases and, unlike previous criminal justice efforts, is not balanced with the necessary reforms to our federal sentencing system.

Key lawmakers in the Senate agree. Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Dick Durbin—the top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee—have already passed a more robust bill out of committee. Grassley called the House bill “naïve and unproductive.” He’s pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a floor vote on legislation that would address prison and sentencing reform.

Jason Pye, the Vice President of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, a libertarian think tank supports the FIRST STEP Act but says it can’t be the last step.

PYE: The read bill is titled the FIRST STEP Act for a reason. It is the first step. We need to come back and do the second, the third steps, the fourth steps, however long it takes for us to get to a point where fewer people are incarcerated.

Critics of the House bill say passing only prison reform makes it more likely sentencing reform won’t happen.

But as long as the impasse continues, neither will happen. And more convicts will re-enter society without the benefits that Jared Hallstrom has enjoyed at his South Dakota prison. He says the work is rewarding.

HALLSTROM: I feel better when I come home and I’m, you know, tired from actually investing myself in something that’s not just sitting there watching TV – what do you accomplish when you do that?

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Springfield, South Dakota.

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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