Prison Can Be a Place ‘Where People Learn,’ Governors Agree

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Smart business practices should set the tone for modern-day criminal justice reform, leading governors say.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, himself a former manager in his family business, and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a former deputy sheriff and insurance claim investigator, helped lead a discussion on correctional issues Saturday at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C., which concluded Sunday.

Both Wolf, a Democrat, and Bryant, a Republican, agreed that states can reduce their prison populations while doing a better job of ensuring that inmates can find productive work when they are released.

It was a far different philosophy from that expressed by many politicians at similar meetings in previous decades, when the emphasis was on putting more people behind bars—and not on training them for productive work when they were released.

In 2012, Pennsylvania adopted a “justice reinvestment” approach aimed at reducing prisoner totals and reinvesting the money saved in reducing recidivism.

The state held more than 51,000 inmates in 2013, a total that has dropped to under 47,400 as of last year.

Wolf told fellow governors that Pennsylvania pursues a policy of giving prisoners a second chance and “getting people back to work,”  which he called “the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do.”

Medicaid on Release

He mentioned other changes that don’t get much attention, such as making inmates eligible for Medicaid immediately on release. In the past, convicts’ Medicaid was suspended, and it took three months after they left prison to be reinstated, a period in which they were particularly vulnerable to getting into trouble again.

Bryant said Mississippi followed a similar strategy, reducing prison populations from about 22,000 to 19,000 over five years and saving $46 million.

“We want to make sure we reinvest in prisoner re-entry,” he said, citing an ongoing effort to “make prisons a safer place, where people can learn.”

Other governors said they were pursuing the same kinds of policies.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, discussed “justice reinvestment” laws enacted in his state in 2017, which also have provided funds for prisoner re-entry projects.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, mentioned a new apprenticeship program for state prisoners. Last month, she said in Iowa that many employers overlook trained inmates because of the fear of  lawsuits. She asked legislators to pass a law protecting businesses who hire Iowans with criminal records.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert pointed to a 2015 law in his state that prioritized prison cells for violent offenders and more alternatives to incarceration for the nonviolent. The state has reinvested more than $35 million saved into treatment programs.

There was much discussion at the governors session of the federal First Step Act signed in December by President Trump, which is aimed partly at improving training programs for federal prisoners, who numbered more than 180,000 as of last week.

Herbert, citing his state’s law nearly four years ago and reforms enacted elsewhere, welcomed the federal change but declared that “states are leading the way” in justice reforms.

The governors were joined by two other key activists in the justice reform arena, Van Jones and Mark Holden.

Jones last month was named chief executive officer of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice organization established by sports, entertainment and business leaders including recording artist Meek Mill, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, entrepreneur Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Jones also is a leader of #cut50, an organization working for a sharp decrease in mass incarceration.

Holden is general counsel of Koch Industries and a noted conservative leader in the justice reform movement.

On Saturday, he noted that up to one-third of Americans may have a criminal record of some kind, and said Koch Industries long has had a policy of hiring many of them.

“It makes business sense not to reduce your applicant pool by one-third,” he said.

Several speakers advocated legislation that already has been adopted in many states and localities to seal or expunge criminal records after offenders have gone for many years without being arrested for a new offense.

There are clear risks of failure in justice reform, speakers acknowledged, citing persistently high recidivism rates among released prisoners.

Mississippi’s Bryant said that as more inmates are released, “some knucklehead will commit another crime.” Government leaders must recognize that in and we “have to own” reforms that will come with some level of repeat criminality.

Despite the conclusion that many states were ahead of the federal government on smart criminal justice practices, Koch’s Holden declared “it’s a big deal” that Congress finally passed reform legislation.

Earlier last week, he  told a panel at John Jay College that the First Step Act should be followed by more in-depth prison  reform measures.

‘Secret Weapon’

Mississippi’s Bryant was credited as a “secret weapon” of reformers in getting President Trump to back the First Step Act, which paved the way for its passage.

Bryant said he told Trump in a White House meeting that he was “the only president who could do this.”

Conservatives in Congress wouldn’t have gone along with a similar plan by former President Obama and provided a political victory for liberals, he said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. 

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