Trump's prison reform law: Good, but not enough
It's common knowledge that crime imposes substantial fiscal and social costs on our country. In 2016, about 1.5% of our nation's GDP was spent funding the state and federal criminal justice systems. Moreover, victims and society at large also bear significant costs through pain, suffering, reduced quality of life, property losses, increased medical costs, and loss of life. The most recent estimates indicate that these damages represent an additional 1.5% of GDP, yielding a total burden of more than 3% of GDP, or roughly $500 billion. The majority of these costs can be attributed to crimes committed by prisoners after already serving in prison. Statistics indicate that about half of federal inmates who were conditionally released will be re-arrested within five years of release, and more than 75 percent of state offenders who were released on community supervision will be re-arrested within five years of release.
President Trump is trying to break this vicious cycle by instituting prison reforms to reduce recidivism. In his executive order of March 7, 2018, the president stated in part:
To further improve public safety, we should aim not only to prevent crime in the first place, but also to provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives. The Federal Government can assist in breaking this cycle of crime through a comprehensive strategy that addresses a range of issues, including mental health, vocational training, job creation, after-school programming, substance abuse, and mentoring. Incarceration is necessary to improve public safety, but its effectiveness can be enhanced through evidence-based rehabilitation programs. These efforts will lower recidivism rates, ease incarcerated individuals' reentry into the community, reduce future incarceration costs, and promote positive social and economic outcomes.
Following the president's leadership, Congress recently passed the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill THAT seeks recidivism reduction through enhancing the reentry process, thereby improving public safety. The legislation requires the attorney general to assess the recidivism rates and find evidence-based solutions to the entire rehabilitation system in our prisons. The objective of the reforms is to help former prisoners transition back into society. Thanks to the president's pro-growth policies, the economy is booming, and unemployment is at a 50-year low. That creates an excellent work environment for all Americans, including former prisoners. Yet studies show that the unemployment rate for ex-inmates is around 27%. That's about the same percentage as for the general public during the Great Depression.
I'm certain there are several factors involved in their inability to get jobs. The lack of skills, poor education, return to an environment that contributed to their initial criminality, and the stigma of being an "ex-con" are obstacles to their re-entry into society. How many employers want to take a chance on hiring someone with a criminal record? What is your first reaction when you meet someone who has done time in prison, especially for a serious crime? The inability of the general public to forgive past crimes forces former inmates to wear "invisible stripes" for the rest of their lives.
This is not an appeal to mawkish compassion; it's simply the recognition that we're all capable of transgressions. The question is, are we capable of forgiveness?
Although prison time is the punishment for breaking the law, those incarceration institutions are also expected to rehabilitate those who spend time within their walls. If the majority of inmates come back again and again, isn't it evident that the system isn't working? Spending billions of dollars annually on a failing institution makes us appear as unsound as those we toss into our jails. Furthermore, it's common knowledge that drug proliferation is rampant in our prisons, which raises another question: if we can't end drug sales and usage among people who are locked in cells within prison walls, how absurd is it to think we can end it among the general population?
Hence, while reducing the revolving door of criminal incarceration is vital, it is equally essential to stop the marketing of drugs within what is supposed to be a controlled environment that costs taxpayers billions each year. President Trump has taken the lead in making changes to a system that appears to be merely recycling criminality by its total failure to reduce recidivism. However, the First Step Act should be followed by a Second Step, which puts an end to the pernicious organized crime that seems to operate with impunity under the not so watchful eyes of correction officials.