WASHINGTON—This piece featuring Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) first appeared in Forbes on March 19, 2018.
An estimated one in three American adults has a criminal record, and over 2.3 million people are incarcerated in this country. Given that over 95% of incarcerated individuals will reenter society, ensuring that they do not commit another crime should be a federal priority.
The solution is clear—corrections policy needs to promote work. But even though having a job is the clearest indicator of how likely someone is to re-offend, between 60% and 75% of ex-offenders remain unemployed one year after their release. To help fix this problem, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) introduced the Prison Reform and Redemption Act.
As the momentum behind this reform shows, being tough on crime is perfectly compatible with wanting individuals with records to find work and become independent. In the following interview, Rep. Collins explains how the federal government can reduce recidivism by giving ex-cons a fresh start.
Jared Meyer: In his State of the Union, President Trump said, “We will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” What is behind the growing consensus that America needs to rethink its prisoner reentry policies?
Rep. Doug Collins: I think there’s been a widespread understanding that the American justice system has a recidivism problem. The critical mass we’re reaching now comes from the realization that there’s a viable solution to this problem—one that would improve public safety by lowering recidivism. Federal prison reform would offer individualized, evidenced-based programs to equip non-violent offenders to re-enter communities as productive neighbors once they’ve served their time.
More than 80% of Americans support federal prison reform efforts, and now their representatives in the Senate, House of Representatives, and White House are moving the issue forward. This February, President Trump released a list of his policy priorities and asked Congress to take action on prison reform. I introduced the Prison Reform and Redemption Act to help the Federal Bureau of Prisons assess each inmate’s risk of reoffending and provide customized resources to address his or her needs.
JM: Your bill offers federal prisoners help transitioning from prison back into their communities if they complete a “recidivism reduction program or productive activity.” What does that cover?
DC: The Prison Reform and Redemption Act focuses on what I call the M-and-M’s, money and morals, as prerequisites for an effective prison reform blueprint.
I believe people are inherently valuable because they’ve been created by a loving God and that all of us are flawed. Together, these facts mean that people will need second chances and that we have the opportunity to promote human dignity and public safety by helping offenders become productive neighbors. At the same time, the bill guards taxpayer dollars by instructing the Bureau of Prisons to implement only programs that have been demonstrated to lower the likelihood that an offender returns to crime.
By focusing on evidence-based initiatives, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act is exceedingly practical. Whether offenders need educational support, vocational skills development, substance abuse rehabilitation, mental health care, or other resources, they will have access to assistance that’s tailored to their individual contexts. When we’re working to build honorable futures out of troubled pasts, we can’t afford to pilot unproven initiatives. Instead, the Redemption Act helps mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers to re-enter their communities after they’ve completed programs that we know decrease their recidivism risk.
JM: What role do you see non-profit organizations and private companies playing in this reform?
DC: Prison reform is focused on reducing recidivism rates, which means that one of its priorities is strengthening the communities that offenders will return to. Non-profit organizations and private companies in these communities play a key role before individuals are released by offering—sometimes at no cost to taxpayers—evidence-based resources like substance abuse rehabilitation or vocational training. Many non-profits can also smooth prisoners’ transitions back into their communities by equipping and engaging them over the long-term.
We can’t forget that one of the biggest factors in whether or not people reoffend is their employment status, so many of the programs that could be implemented through the Redemption Act would focus on readying people for jobs. Especially with today’s tightening job market, many private companies are willing to hire workers with criminal histories when they have industry-specific skills and support networks. This is why effective recidivism-reduction programs focus on work training and community engagement as crucial steps towards rehabilitation.
JM: There are about 200,000 federal prisoners that could possibly benefit from your bill’s recidivism-reducing programs. Though that certainly is a lot of lives that could be affected, it is less than 10% of the total number of people incarcerated in the United States. What should states do to help individuals in their custody have a better chance at becoming productive members of society?
DC: My father was a Georgia state trooper and helped me realize that law enforcement and all of my neighbors are safer when people leave prison less likely to return to crime. Georgia implemented prison reform initiatives and saw the number of individuals sent back to prison for parole violations fall by 35%. So, there’s a lot that the federal government can learn from successes at the state level, and there’s a lot that states can continue doing to decrease the number of reoffenders within their systems.
At federal, state, and local levels, the success of recidivism reduction initiatives is tied to the employment rates among prisoners who have been released. States can align their re-entry programs with local employment needs so that the education and skills development offered in those programs reflect the job opportunities most available in their areas.
Prisoners have also found it difficult to obtain identification documents like driver licenses after their release. Since IDs are often prerequisites to employment and other resources, helping offenders to obtain IDs before their release removes a factor in recidivism. This is why my friend and Democrat colleague Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is going to introduce the IDs for Returning Citizens Act to make this improvement at the federal level.
JM: Finding work is vital for those with criminal records to rebuild their lives. Work keeps ex-offenders out of dependency, allows them to gain valuable skills and experience, moves them off welfare, and helps them avoid reoffending. It is promising to see action coming out of the bipartisan agreement that Congress needs to promote work to reduce recidivism.