Criminal justice reform starts at home

Colleen Hammond | Opinions Editor

Amid the frenzy of this year’s democratic debates, a slew of candidates released their master plans for criminal justice reform. Most involved reversals of mandatory minimums, overturning drug charges and releasing thousands of prisoners at once. It’s clear that candidates and voters see the inherent problems in the criminal justice system, and plenty of solutions to mass incarceration are being offered. But are any of them remotely practical or beneficial?

Even though the U.S. ranks third in overall world population, it currently has the highest number of prisoners of any country in the world. Nearly 2 million American adults are currently behind bars. That is roughly one in every 100 Americans incarcerated.

To make matters worse, the national recidivism rate for prisoners is around 50%, meaning half of all prisoners will have a repeat offense after their release and find themselves back in jail and/or prison.

This return rate indicates the radical inefficacy of the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely to change. Any changes to criminal justice reform, outside of presidential pardons, require congressional approval. The current political climate suggests that both sides of the aisle are not willing to cooperate on this issue. Democrats continually advocate for an end to privatized prisons while their republican counterparts attempt to keep current the system in place. It is a gridlocked nightmare for those 2 million American serving time.

Because of this impossible political gridlock and the lack of practical solutions to the problems plaguing the criminal justice system, citizens should redirect their attention to improving the lives of prisoners after their release. Leaders may not have figured out how to address the mass incarceration crisis, but there are plenty of actions average citizens can do to help those who have paid their debt to society.

Although there is a societal fear of ex-convicts, communities need to remember that a criminal past does not erase a person’s inherent dignity. Convicts deserve the same level of humanity and respect as the rest of the country. Their crimes may have been awful, but their time in prison was payment for those terrible deeds.

Communities need to take a more active role in helping released prisoners. The transition back into society can prove extremely difficult for many ex-prisoners. Most prisoners are released with little to no money and an insufficient support system. This is why many former convicts find themselves homeless and broke. To assuage these needs, many turn back to a life of crime, typically selling drugs. This puts them back behind bars, and the vicious cycle continues.

To combat cyclical imprisonment, employers, especially small businesses, need to open their minds about hiring ex-convicts. Despite the cultural fear of former prisoners in the workplace, secure employment is the first step in helping ex-convicts begin their new lives.

Helping former prisoners may not be the most glamorous or widely celebrated act of charity, but it is necessary to realize the communal responsibility to this growing population. Increased aid after release will help lower the national recidivism rate.

The solution to mass incarceration is not fancy plans by politicians to release thousands of prisoners at once. The current political system is too gridlocked for top-down reform at the moment. The criminal justice system needs to be reformed from the ground up by communities recognizing their role in this crisis.

Providing ex-convicts with opportunities for employment, housing and communal involvement are not acts of societal weakness but instead are fundamental factors in the total rehabilitation of prisoners.

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