White House Pledges to Invest Millions in Prison Reform

By Christopher Zoukis

The Obama administration has announced plans to spend millions to address many of the facets of a life of incarceration, from mentoring at risk youth, helping families with incarcerated parents, to addressing employment and re-entry issues.

Referencing several studies which demonstrate the effectiveness of education and re-entry programs at reducing recidivism, the President noted the programs are a much-needed start at reforming our failed prison system, ensuring that at risk and previously incarcerated individuals can become functional members of society and removing unnecessary barriers.

This announcement comes at a time when more than 2.2 million are incarcerated – more than any other country, more than 4 times the world average. The incarceration rate has grown by more than 220 percent since 1980, and sentences are longer. Incarceration rates are disproportionally high for minority groups, and many who face prison time come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as many as 50% suffer from mental illness.

Mass incarceration is failing, particularly those who need support the most, and these programs are a step in adjusting our current prison system- ensuring we provide support to divert from the system in the first place, and give support to those leaving prison, who can become productive members of society if the right structures are in place. The programs will also be in line with current research, which suggest that every dollar spent on education is 4-5 dollars saved on future re-incarceration costs, and that a 10% increase in high school graduation rates means a 9% reduction in arrest rates.

The statistics don’t lie –  education is proven to reduce crime and recidivism.

Besides opening access to federal Pell Grants, which will see 12,000 students from 141 correctional facilities enrolled in educational programs from 67 colleges and universities, millions in grants are being awarded to multiple organizations to develop solutions to other issues. Some $31 million will be given to design programs for young adults to provide job training, as well as mentoring, focusing on apprenticeships and occupational training and $21 million will be given to organizations to serve individuals in high poverty and high crime areas.

Another $5 million will be given to specialized American Job centers inside correctional facilities, to assist soon to be released inmates with the transition to life in their communities and prepare them for employment. About $6.5 million will provide mentorship to youth at risk of dropping out of high school or entering the justice system, including mentorship by justice and emergency services personnel; $8.7 million will also go toward addressing the cycle between the justice system and homeless services, as well as funding supportive housing.

These welcome programs build on previous work by the administration, including initiatives such as establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce and the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, encouraging the private sector to create jobs for previously incarcerated individuals, and ‘Banning the Box’ for federal employment opportunities to ensure greater access to jobs. In January President Obama also announced banning solitary confinement for juveniles and for low level infractions, increasing the amount of time those in solitary are allowed outside of cells, and broadening treatment for the mentally ill.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com