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DOJ launches initiative to help former prisoners reenter society

High recidivism rates have prompted the country's first National Reentry Week, calling attention to programs that help inmates transition back to their communities. 

Emily Rose Bennett/The Grand Rapids Press via AP
Inmates learn welding in the Vocational Village program at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

About two-thirds of those incarcerated in state prisons are arrested for a new crime within three years, and about three fourths are arrested within five years, according to a 2014 Department of Justice study of prisoners in 30 states.

These high recidivism rates are what prompted the Justice Department to declare the country's first National Reentry Week, which calls attention to programs aimed at helping former inmates return to their communities.  

President Obama highlighted the initiative in his weekly address on Sunday. "We need to ensure that [inmates] are prepared to reenter society and become productive, contributing members of their families and communities – and maybe even role models," Mr. Obama said. 

The Justice Department's "Road Map to Reentry" focuses on job training and substance abuse programs in prisons to prepare inmates for life outside prison and to keep them from returning.

This push is part of a larger trend in prison reform that has garnered support across the political spectrum as lawmakers take stock of the financial and societal costs of mass incarceration.

Beginning last year, the House Judiciary Committee began a series of markups aimed at reforming the US justice system, beginning with the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, which reduced mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and provided alternatives for low-level drug offenders.

Criminal justice policies in the 1980s and 90s that mandated longer sentences and increased conviction rates for nearly all offenses have driven the "incarceration boom," according to a White House economic report on incarceration and the criminal justice system. Today, the United States spends $80 billion a year to house 2.2 million inmates, about three times the amount spent each year on global humanitarian assistance, for example.

"This is about lives we are throwing away," Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said at a bipartisan gathering at the White House on Monday to discuss the report.  "We pay an enormous price for this."

Former inmates trying to adjust face "daunting obstacles to good jobs, decent housing, adequate health care, quality education, and even the right to vote," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a press release announcing National Reentry Week. The initiative highlights programs to "tear down the barriers that stand between returning citizens and a meaningful second chance," she said. 

Ms. Lynch suggested that former inmates obtain state identification cards, part of a larger group of efforts to ease their reentry into society.

On Friday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) restored voting rights to felons, overriding an amendment to the Commonwealth's constitution that would otherwise bar them from voting.

Also last week, the Republican National Committee unanimously passed a resolution to reform criminal justice laws, and applauded states such as Texas, Georgia, and Alabama, which have already adopted policies to reduce their prison populations.

Many governors struggle with state budgets, conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin said at the White House gathering, especially in cases where incarceration costs more than education.

The Obama administration's 2017 Budget proposes the 21st Century Justice Initiative, a $5 billion investment of $500 million over 10 years, which focuses on three key areas of reform: "the community, the courtroom, and the cell block."

Investments in education, limiting out-of-school suspensions, increasing police resources and transparency, fixing cell block conditions, and changing employment restrictions are just a few solutions to keep Americans out of prison, according to the Initiative, and to keep taxpayers from having to pay for them.

As important as reentry efforts is the message that the program sends to former inmates, said Ms. Lynch. "They are welcome back into society; that their government is invested in their success; and that they can now — quite literally — exchange their old identity as a federal inmate for a fresh start."

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