Michael Duggan Opening the cell door to re-entry
There hasn’t been a lot of good news out of Washington lately, given the state of politics and the growing divisiveness between Americans. But there is change afoot in the nation’s capital that will likely impact every community across the United States: Congress and the White House have teamed up to ease draconian sentencing laws that have left our prisons overcrowded and unsafe while doing little to keep individuals out of prison once they are released.
Known as the First Step Act, this legislation, which was passed in the House last May by a vote of 360 to 59 and now awaits passage in the Senate, will reshape the current federal prison in-take system by effectively assessing an inmate’s needs and linking them to community and faith-based programs before they complete their sentences.
The bill prevents individuals from recidivating back to prison through programs and services to help them find jobs, housing, counseling, and a viable plan to help them reconnect with their families. The president in recent weeks has publicly praised all the elements of the bill and has urged the Senate to pass the legislation as soon as possible. Its passage comes at a unique time when the president is expected to introduce a massive infrastructure bill that could result in hundreds of thousands of jobs for all Americans, including the formally incarcerated.
There are 2.3 million Americans behind bars, including 1,316,000 in state prison, 225,000 in federal prisons, and almost 50,000 in youth detention facilities across the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. More than 625,000 will leave prison after serving their entire sentence or because of probation. The number of people currently on probation is a staggering 3.7 million, a figure also based on PPI’s research.
It’s not hard to see why this bill had strong bipartisan support, especially given the inordinate number of people in prison. For too long we made rehabilitation a dirty word from which politicians on both sides of the aisle shunned. Instead, we opted for punitive sentencing with little or no in-prison programs to help them learn a trade, get an education, or simply find the right path once they were released.
That mindset evolved for several reasons; first, we can no longer afford to house low-level nonviolent prisoners. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, incarceration costs an average of more than $31,000 per inmate, per year, including the feeding, housing, and security of prisoners. In some states, the cost is $60,000 per inmate.
Second, we’ve begun to explore effective pre-release and community re-entry programs that provide a cost-benefit to taxpayers. In Connecticut, where the inmate population stands at 13,500, we’ve begun pre-release re-entry programs. My organization begins working with inmates, mostly young people, six months prior to their release and for a period of up to a year following their release from prison. Similar to other pre-release programs, we provide skills training for job opportunities, case management to address emotional or addictive behaviors, and we help them to think about soft skills training such as learning to manage their money prior to getting a job.
Make no mistake: people who commit horrific crimes should be held accountable by laws that govern those actions. The First Step Act is geared toward those people who’ve committed low-level nonviolent crimes, which often involve the sale of drugs. The research on such programs has been positive; a 2014 report by the University of Cincinnati concluded “that reentry programs that initiated treatment while the offenders were incarcerated and continued into the community had a greater impact on recidivism than programs that were limited to pre- or post-release.”
That the bill was sponsored by Hakeem Jeffries, a liberal Democrat from New York, and Doug Collins, a staunch Georgia Republican, speaks to the ideological bridge forged by two members of the House who see how federal and state sentencing laws have torn apart families and whole communities.
For the greater part of our nation’s history we’ve slammed the door shut on the idea that formerly incarcerated individuals can become responsible, productive members of society. It’s time for us to begin opening the door to changes that we know will make it possible for community re-entry to work.
Michael Duggan is executive director of Domus Kids, Inc. in Stamford, a multi-service organization which serves more than 1,500 youth in our school, out-of-school, and juvenile justice programs.