Prison reform bill keeps jobs locked up

By Editorial Board

One in four of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S., yet the U.S. only comprises 5 percent of the world’s total population. The disproportionately high number of prisoners in the U.S. can be attributed to its unusually harsh punishments for nonviolent offenders—particularly those convicted of drug charges.

In early October, a bipartisan group of legislators led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a new Senate bill aimed at advancing prison reform and lowering the costs of the prison system. 

The bill introduces a variety of necessary changes related to convictions of drug-related felonies. It seeks to limit the use of mandatory 10-year sentences and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses. 

The bill would also allow nonviolent drug offenders to receive sentences less than the mandatory minimum by broadening the “safety valve,” the exceptions to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the bill “the most significant sentencing reform legislation in a generation.” 

The passage of the bill would benefit both prisoners and taxpayers. The U.S. government spends $80 billion federally on prison operations nationwide each year. Taxpayers contribute an estimated $260 per capita on prisons annually, according to a report by The Hamilton Project. 

However, when those prisoners are released, there must be support provided to ensure they do not return to prison. If passed, the bill would boost incentives for prisoners to take part in drug rehabilitation programs, an important provision, but the Senate is ignoring what happens to the nation’s prisoners after their release.

Some 68 percentof prisoners are arrested again within three years of being released from prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. High rates of recidivism in the U.S. can be correlated with the difficulties a prisoner faces after being released. A prisoner will face 44,000 collateral consequences of imprisonment after release, including obstacles related to obtaining food stamps, access to public housing and working in sectors such as finance, the military and many government contractors, according to a 2009 report by the American Bar Association. Educational and work-placement programs inside prisons should be strengthened to help former prisoners conquer these obstacles.

In 2008, the Urban Institute interviewed 740 male former prisoners. Eight months after being released, only 45 percent held a job, and 65 percent had been employed at some point. Former prisoners who were employed had a much lower chance of returning to prison, according to the study. As many as 60 percent of former prisoners do not find employment within a year of being released, according to a joint survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design. The study also found that 76 percent of respondents said it was “very difficult” or “nearly impossible” to find work after being released. 

The Urban Institute study also reported only 53 percent of respondents were employed while in prison, while 20 percent reported that no employment or education programs were available to them in prison. Increasing the accessibility of these programs would give prisoners the opportunity to enhance their skill sets and leave prison prepared to enter the workforce.

The post-prison employment crisis can also be addressed after prisoners are released. Illinois is one of 19 states with laws that support the “Ban the Box” campaign, which mandates employers remove the section on job applications that asks if the applicant has ever been imprisoned or convicted of a felony. “Ban the Box” laws prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history in the early stages of an interview, reserving those questions for later in the hiring process.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a positive step toward reforming the criminal justice system and lowering prison costs. However, there must be proper support to ensure former prisoners can find employment and can integrate into society so they do not end up back behind bars.