The United States holds the most incarcerated people in the world.
No matter how many times you repeat it for its shock value, we are running short on solutions to this glaring problem. The impact goes far beyond the individual in prison, affecting their families and entire communities. There is hope, as just this past July, United States Representative Doug Collins, R-Ga., introduced the Prison Reform and Redemption Act aiming to reduce the recidivism rate of federal offenders.
Among the statistics that show a troubling trajectory of the U.S. criminal justice system, the recidivism rate is particularly galling. In fact, 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, and half of them will be making a round trip back to prison. Because of the intolerably high recidivism rate, lawmakers across the political spectrum are receptive to ideas about how to alleviate the problem.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, dozens of states have reduced their incarceration rate and their crime rate. A successful example of this is Texas, where they invested in drug courts and other diversionary efforts that resulted in a 14 percent drop in its prison population. Even as Texas holds fewer inmates, it now enjoys its lowest crime rate since 1968.
The introduction of similar reforms in Washington has proven difficult. Criminal justice reform bills that include sentencing reform have stalled in Congress, but there's hope that a more narrow measure like Collins' bill, that has a stable of bipartisan support and a focus on the back end of the system, stands a better chance of passing.
People sentenced to prison come out worse off, becoming pariahs in their community, hobbled in the labor market by limited job skills and a criminal record. While making the documentary film, "Incarcerating Us", I learned the vital importance of employment when it comes to successful prisoner reentry. A man I spoke with that is featured in the film, Tracey Syphax, served multiple prison sentences for drug offenses. The last time he walked out of prison he managed to get a roofing job, and he never went back. This job gave Tracey the stability to build his life, and he made the most of the opportunity. He went on to start his own thriving construction and real estate company, which is now worth over a million dollars.
In addition to running his business, Tracey advocates for criminal justice reform, especially ways to help ex-offenders get jobs so they too can put their past behind them and successfully reenter society. When talking about the many ex-offenders that come to his office in Trenton, New Jersey looking for a job, he told me, "So, many times I've seen it. They come to me and say I tried, I couldn't get a job, so now I'm back out here on the streets doing what I've always done."
The Prison Reform and Redemption Act aims to alleviate this problem and give offenders better opportunities to reenter society. More specifically, the measure allows for incarcerated individuals to participate in expanded educational and vocational programs aimed at reducing the risk of returning to federal prisons. In addition, it would allow prisoners to serve the finals days of their sentence at home or in other approved housing instead of a cell block.
Congress should pass this bill so we can have more stories like Tracey's and fewer people trapped in a cycle of incarceration.
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