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DOJ prison reforms aim to turn convicts into productive citizens

Tony Kirsch, right, an auto body technician, works with Montrel Stiebling, a former inmate, in the body shop of Toyota of New Orleans. Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert

DOJ prison reforms aim to turn convicts into productive citizens

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced new initiatives today aimed at reducing the population of America’s 2.2 million prisoners and enabling parolees to thrive after paying their debt to society.

“Sometimes the sheer size of these numbers blunts our sensibilities to what they truly represent: people,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a DOJ policy report released this morning. “If we are truly going to make the most of this precious resource, this human capital, we must ensure that these individuals have the tools and the skills and the opportunities they need to return to their communities.”

The announcement adds pressure for significant criminal justice reforms, which already have bipartisan support in Congress. But initiatives have stagnated amid a contentious presidential election season. The new report outlines new principals for the future of federal prisons, including offering better substance abuse and mental health programs and committing to involvement beyond the prison gates to ensure successful reentry to society.

The DOJ will focus resources on evidence-based programs that teach job and life skills as well as rehabilitation. Each current program will get reassessed based on documented results. Ineffective initiatives will be cut. The department also will extend more opportunities for inmates to build and maintain social relationships by permitting more visits from friends and family members.

Criminal justice reform measures passed the Senate and House Judiciary Committees last fall but remain in limbo awaiting full votes in both chambers.

The government spends more than $80 billion a year on incarceration, and 40 percent of prisoners return to jail cells within three years of release. And yet the criminal justice system has not seen major reforms in 40 years.

Prison reform advocates applaud the executive branch for bringing criminal justice reform back to the foreground while legislators move at a snail’s pace.

“Could you imagine if our hospitals made people sicker or if we spent billions of dollars on schools that made our kids less smart?” asked Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship. “It is high time that our government starts taking some accountability that if they are going to incarcerate a human being, it should it be for a useful purpose for the community.”

DeRoche said not every prison has a constructive culture and the government needs to do a better job helping inmates transition to a crime-free lifestyle.

But in order for inmates to successfully reintegrate into society, individual attitudes and perceptions need to change. Many former prisoners return home to find they are unwelcome in their communities. Employers don’t want to hire people with a criminal record, and landlords don’t want to house them.

“These are people who have already paid their debt,” DeRoche said. “We need to remove social and structural barriers so they can be assets again.”

On Friday, Lynch launched an effort to start removing one stigma for former inmates in Alabama. In a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, Lynch said the DOJ wants to help convicted felons obtain state-issued identification cards after they get out of prison.

Each year, more than 40,000 men and women leave prisons and reenter their communities. But with felonies on their records, many are unable to get a driver’s license or other state-issued identification cards. Without a proper photo ID, it becomes an arduous task to apply for jobs, register for school, open a bank account, or get health insurance. Lynch’s letter asks Alabama to allow parolees to exchange their prison IDs for state-issued ones—or simply permit them to use their prison IDs as a valid document.

Evan Wilt Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.

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