US Attorney General Loretta Lynch wants states to make it easier for felons to find productive roles in society following release from prison. She is urging governors to make it easier for former criminals who have served their time to obtain state identification cards, as part of a kick-off for the nation's first National Reentry Week, which began Sunday.
"Too often, justice-involved individuals who have paid their debt to society confront daunting obstacles to good jobs, decent housing, adequate health care, quality education, and even the right to vote," Ms. Lynch said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
"National Reentry Week highlights the many ways that the Department of Justice – and the entire Obama Administration – is working to tear down the barriers that stand between returning citizens and a meaningful second chance – leading to brighter futures, stronger communities, and a more just and equal nation for all."
Such arguments for justice reform are becoming more common as the criminal justice community confronts the proverbial "revolving door" that sees offenders returning to prison again and again. Reform advocates, including President Obama, have called for reevaluation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that critics say disproportionately effect minority offenders, a renewed focus on inmate rehabilitation and education in the nation's prisons, and supportive reentry policies and programs as means to help former offenders from becoming reoffenders.
That mentality was on display in Virginia on Friday, when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to restore the voting rights of some 200,000 Virginia felons released from prison. The Richmond Times-Dispatch described the move as a "historic shift away from a ... policy of lifetime disenfranchisement."
The conservative response to Governor McAuliffe's executive order has mirrored critiques of the greater movement to reduce barriers to societal reentry for former convicts. For criminal justice hardliners, felons – particularly those convicted of murder – withdrew from the social contract when they committed their offenses. As Virginia Del. Robert Bell told The Washington Post, "A murder victim won't get to vote, but that man that killed them will."
Still, such efforts have been gaining momentum. McAuliffe's decision made Virginia the 20th to slacken voting restrictions for felons in the past 20 years. Fourteen states allow felons to vote after their prison terms are completed, even while they remain on parole or probation. Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated Americans to absentee-vote. Florida, Kentucky and Iowa still permanently deny voting rights for felons.
The Justice Department decision tells the federal Bureau of Prisons to make a unique reentry plan for each inmate that will account for substance abuse, criminal history, and education level. The agency will also be reviewing its network of halfway houses and analyzing its life skills, education and job training programs to ensure that they're serving the needs of inmates as well as possible. A pilot program is also being launched at four Bureau of Prisons facilities for children of incarcerated parents.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.