- - Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Prisoner re-entry programs can have long-term positive impacts on communities and individuals. Last year, President Donald Trump proclaimed April to be Second Chance month for individuals with a criminal history. One year later, the First Step Act has been enacted and is in the process of being implemented. The bill aims to reduce recidivism rates and give ex-offenders the opportunity to redeem themselves.

The president spoke about how the First Step Act was already making a positive impact. “I’m thrilled to report that, since I signed the First Step Act, more than 16,000 inmates have already enrolled in drug treatment programs,” Mr. Trump said on April 1 at the White House during the Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration. “In less than four months, more than 500 people with unfair sentences have been released from prison and are free to begin a new life.” The law enables faith-based organizations to assist in providing for re-entry programs. In fact, Christian ministries such as Prison Fellowship have successfully worked with prisoners in areas such as job training and mentoring.

Re-entry programs would reduce recidivism rates and would make communities safer. Lower recidivism rates mean fewer crimes committed and fewer victims of crime. The First Step Act will help reduce recidivism rates. According to Prison Fellowship, roughly 40,000 federal prisoners were released last year and roughly 20,000, or 50 percent, will return within three years of being released. The fact that this landmark legislation passed with broad bipartisan support during a time of tremendous divisive partisanship is remarkable.

When the state prison population is taken into consideration, about 650,000 prisoners are released every year and statistics demonstrate that approximately two-thirds of them will be arrested for another crime after they are released from prison. Over the last few years, states have undertaken efforts to provide for better re-entry programs for prison inmates.

The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has placed an emphasis on educating its prisoners. In 2016, it was the national leader among all adult education centers, prisons or otherwise, for the passing rate on the GED exam. In addition, Georgia has enacted laws that provide for various job training and drug treatment programs in its state prison facilities. According to recent crime data, since these laws were enacted Georgia’s violent crime rate has continued to fall.

Furthermore, in 2007 Texas enacted measures that prioritized drug treatment, mental health and rehabilitation for its prisoners. Three years later, Texas’ prison population declined by 15,000 inmates and probation recidivism fell by nearly 25 percent. By the time Gov. Rick Perry had left office in January 2015, the crime rate declined to its lowest rate since 1968.

Obtaining employment is a crucial step for an ex-offender attempting to re-enter society. Last year, states such as Indiana, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas and Wyoming enacted legislation relaxing their occupational licensing restrictions. These laws allow individuals who have committed certain crimes to have the ability to re-join the workforce, enabling them to provide for themselves and their families, while positively contributing to their community.

This common-sense solution offered by the states has not gone unnoticed by the Trump administration. “Americans with criminal records are unemployed at rates up to five times higher than the national average … I am announcing that the Second Step Act will be focused on successful re-entry and reduce unemployment for Americans with past criminal records,” Mr. Trump at the summit. “When we say ‘Hire American,’ we mean all Americans, including former inmates who have paid their debt to society.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model Resolution in Support of Reentry Programs outlines several reasons for the importance of re-entry initiatives. Namely, that the development and implementation of sound re-entry policies promote public safety, reduce recidivism rates and offer offenders second chances. The resolution calls on states to designate the month of April as Second Chance Month in order to raise awareness for re-entry programs.

In addition, the ALEC model Collateral Consequences Reduction Act allows a prisoners the right to petition a licensing board for review of his/her criminal record at any time for a determination of whether the individual’s criminal record will prevent him/her from obtaining a license. This information allows inmates to know whether they will be able to obtain a license for a certain occupation where a license is required before they participate in a job training program for that occupation.

Ultimately, over 95 percent of all individuals serving a prison sentence will be released. Criminals should certainly be punished and held accountable for their actions; however, they should also be permitted the chance to rejoin their communities after they have paid their debt to society. Elected officials at all levels of government should place substantial emphasis on public safety and allow prisoners the opportunity to participate in those programs that help ensure that they do not commit additional crimes after they have been released from prison.

• Bernie Satrom, a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, also serves as chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council Working Group on Reentry. Ronald J. Lampard serves as the Criminal Justice Task Force director at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

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