- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

While the question of homeland security has justifiably focused congressional attention on the effectiveness of consolidating security tasks in a new $40 billion department, another $40 billion public-safety issue (the operating costs of the nation's prisons), is also before Congress. At stake is arguably the most powerful weapon prison administrators have to do their job job-training and work programs.
As attorney general and deputy attorney general in Republican and Democratic administrations, we saw firsthand the rehabilitative impact of job training and work programs, and how real work in prison provide real jobs and success after prison. In short, these programs work. Therefore, the pending reform legislation before Congress (H.R.1577) is important to us.
No one questions the need for prison programs that work. Every day this year, some 1,600 inmates leave prison. Are they ready? In June, the Department of Justice published data on recidivism rates. By following 272,111 state inmates released in 1994, researchers found that 67.5 percent were re-arrested within three years.
Federal Prison Industries' (FPI) past achievements of providing valuable job training to inmates earned it support from Congress and Democrat and Republican administrations alike. Lately, FPI's reputation in Congress has been tarnished. Some critics claim FPI is an agency insulated by its original 1930s business model and unable to change. They say FPI has unfairly competed against businesses, displaced civilian workers and expanded its authority without congressional approval. FPI supporters deny these charges and offer evidence that FPI has taken significant precautions to avoid harm to the private sector.
Given the importance of job- training and work programs and this congressional environment, legislation must: reform FPI with a job training and work model for the 21st-century workplace, with real safeguards to avoid harm to American workers; and allow for sufficient new job training and work. H.R.1577 is a major step forward toward the first objectives. It does not adequately address the second.
H.R.1577 needs two changes. First, we should let employers only employers that certify that they cannot find enough workers train and employ inmates. This training and employment should be done through a limited pilot program that will not let FPI sell in the commercial market. The AFL-CIO reports 2 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1998, many to offshore locations. This pilot can, in a small way, reduce this transfer of jobs offshore.
Second, the bill may unnecessarily restrict the states in a manner that could kill many state programs, discourage new initiatives and cost the states millions of dollars. Before passing legislation that would restrict these programs, hearings should be held. If these programs are operating effectively and consistent with the corrections aims of FPI, states should be free to act. With these changes, H.R.1577 is a winner. The amended bill preserves reforms FPI that critics seek, and provides training and work that FPI supporters want.
The private sector will support the amended bill, as it supports similar state pilot programs, because they help remedy an urgent need of employers skilled workers. A National Association of Manufacturer's report reveals that even during last year's downturn, manufacturers still couldn't find enough production workers with "basic employability skills." This shortage will get worse. The Employment Policy Foundation projects growing shortages to reach 12.4 million job openings by 2021.
H.R.1577 has passed out of committee. It may go to the floor for a vote this week. As amended, H.R.1577 should pass. Taxpayers spend some $40 billion a year for prisons and, as noted above, most inmates fail when they leave prison. Not passing H.R.1577 as amended means not strengthening one of the best tools we have to reduce this failure rate, to reduce crime and to increase public safety.
Like other domestic security agencies, FPI is today a source of controversy in Congress. But the importance of FPI's function is not controversial. Providing training and work opportunities has bipartisan support because these programs are especially important to those who are in the greatest need unskilled, lower-income and disadvantaged individuals who disproportionately make up our inmate population.
This broad support is not new. Twenty years ago last December at the University of Nebraska Law School, Chief Justice Warren Burger laid out the case for inmate work with a powerful idea: "When society places a person behind walls and bars, it has a moral obligation to do whatever can reasonably be done to change that person before he or she goes back into the stream of society." We agree, and hope that Congress will too.

Edwin Meese was attorney general in the Reagan administration. Eric Holder was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

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