Ultimately, we need to rethink our approach to the entire criminal justice system. It’s a process that’s going to take time. Using spit and duct tape to try and solve these problems will end up creating more problems down the line. As such, we need to take a more long-term view of what will make the real difference when it comes to solving problems.
Don’t get me wrong, we would all love to have quick and easy solutions that fix everything now. But that just isn’t how the world works. People who are deep in debt aren’t going to get out of it tomorrow, those who have a lot of weight to lose will need time in addition to positive habits, and those looking to build a house will need the time and expertise to get it done. Taking shortcuts in any of these will all but guarantee failure. And failure is currently what we as a nation are doing in terms of criminal justice reform on the whole.
Instead, we need to take an investor’s attitude toward stopping recidivism, because, really, that’s what this effort is — an investment in our future. Fewer people returning to prison means it costs taxpayers less, and those people staying out of prison create stronger communities as well as allow more contributions to our system overall.
This is why we need to push for this outcome. But getting there will be a journey. Let’s take a look at what that journey looks like.
1. Supporting Legislation Like The FIRST Step Act
We’ve discussed it quite a bit on the RED blog, but it bears repeating — the FIRST Step Act is where it began this year. It’s a great beginning, where the ills of mandatory minimums are trying to be fixed. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing that often goes through at the federal level is. Rather, it’s a beginning, a starting point from which we can enact policies that make for real change in the system.
We’ve written about those who have really benefited from the FIRST Step Act already, and you can find those examples here. But suffice it to say, this program is a great beginning.
Over time, the people who have been released contribute more, cost the system less, and have been intently vetted to make sure that they are the likeliest candidates to make a positive change. And when you invest forgiveness and commutation of sentences to prisoners like that, something wonderful happens. Not only do they get the means to start contributing to society in an idealistic way, they get to practically contribute. Families are made whole again, they get jobs, pay taxes, and get involved in the community again.
Supporting the FIRST Step Act is how it begins, but we need everyone to contact their state and federal elected representatives to demand further action. State prisons are the biggest offenders, by far, and it’s going to take action in each state in order to make a true dent in the problem.
2. Incentivizing Motivation & Banning The Box
There’s one thing that most people come away with whenever they’ve seen a documentary or some Hollywood film about prison — prisoners are extremely resourceful. They find ways in prison to make their lives livable to what extent they can. Sometimes this is a positive, like making a “cheesecake,” and unfortunately, sometimes it’s a negative, like making weapons and contraband.
But what if this skill could be harnessed on the outside? What if the same ingenuity put to use in those situations to improve lives were put to use legally? Prisoners who are released early often develop strong work ethics — just ask a line cook. Chances are good that a line cook has known someone from work in those shoes. But the ingenuity of seeing the world and finding ways to improve it is a skill set that Americans cherish. At least, on paper.
As such, there’s a great amount of success in business coaching for prisoners. When forced to notify employers of a felony conviction, that step alone contributes to recidivism. It creates a barrier to entry for an already difficult task — getting back into the real world. If we truly want to reform criminal justice, we have to make sure that prisoners are able to contribute when they are released.
Sending people back into the same circumstances that caused them to offend in the first place is doing the same thing and expecting different results — some people’s definition of insanity.
So let’s stop being insane, and let’s start actually doing something that will make a difference.
3. Investing in The Future of Education
No matter how you come at this problem, one thing is overwhelmingly clear — if you’re not reforming the school to prison pipeline, then the future will look just as bad (if not worse) than it does today.
Children are the future. They are the future in business, the future in the military, the future in Congress, the future in church leaders, the future in communities — the future in everything. Now, you might be saying, “yeah, we get that,” but most people leave something off of this list.
Children are, especially in poorer areas, the future inhabitants of our prisons, as well.
Let that sink in for a moment. Children are the future of our prisons. So why not try to curb the problem there?
First of all, many school systems rely way too heavily on police involvement where school administrations lack the power to intervene. We need to be bolder as a nation, and demand that children get what they need. Often times, there’s a reason at home that a child acts out in class. So getting suspended only returns the child to the source of the problem, and cuts out a resource that could change their life for the better.
In underprivileged areas, there is a great need for better behavioral health professionals like psychologists, occupational therapists, and everyone else who is geared to make a lasting positive impact on those kids.
And we can either pay for it now, when they’re children and have the best likelihood of changing, or we can pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to incarcerate them later.
We’ll be paying that tab one way or another. How do you think that money would be best spent?
For more on how you can help to stop recidivism for good, click here.