What parent hopes their child will grow up to be a career criminal? What child dreams of one day living behind the bars of one of America’s 102 federal prisons?
Going to prison is a nightmare, not a dream. And it’s become a terrible reality for many.
Today, more than 2.4 million people are confined in American prisons, jails or juvenile correctional facilities. Nearly one million of those are African Americans. It’s estimated that one of every 20 Americans--including one of every four black males—will be incarcerated in a state or federal prison at some point in their lives.
Not everyone in prison is a hardened criminal. Indeed, many are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent and relatively low-level offenses, such as a single drug conviction.
Consider the case of Jamel Dossie. In the words of sentencing Judge John Gleeson, Dossie was “a young, small-time, street-level drug dealer’s assistant.” He was convicted of selling 88.1 grams of crack cocaine. Although Dossie had no prior convictions, mandatory sentencing provisions left Gleeson no choice but to hand down a five-year sentence—a punishment that the judge decried as “unjust,” even as he imposed it.
Criminals must pay their debt to society. But federal prisons can do more than warehouse low-level offenders for years on end. They should provide low-risk inmates who can be rehabilitated a chance to do something positive with their lives once they leave prison.
Our federal prisons house thousands of low-level offenders like Jamel Dossie. Each is a missing father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter. Their absence stresses families, often tearing them apart. I know the challenges that come with being raised in a home when the father is often absent. And I’ve seen the damage it creates ripple from one generation to another.
As a society, we can and must do better. Treating low-level offenders as individuals, rather than numbers, is key.
To do that, prisons will have to devote time and resources to figuring out what factors—such as lack of education or job skills, mental illness or substance abuse—contributed to the fall of each prisoner, and which prisoners are most likely to benefit from rehabilitative services. Once those questions are answered, the prisons can offer appropriate programs or treatments to those best able to take advantage of them.
This is no “pie in the sky” solution. Dozens of states have been experimenting with various training and treatment programs for years, trying to weed out those that don’t work from those that really do. As it turns out, many of the more successful programs are faith-based.
Admittedly, no program can guarantee success. But quite a few state-tested programs have already demonstrated the ability to reduce recidivism. It’s time to put those programs to work in the federal prison system.
The House has already passed legislation, called the FIRST STEP Act, that would do just that. The ball is now in the Senate’s court, where Sen. Chuck Grassley has.added some long-overdue sentencing reforms, such as reducing some of the severe penalties now meted out for low-level drug offenses.
The bill aims to help convicts use their time “inside” to deal with their personal challenges, thus preparing them to lead productive lives “outside.” This is certainly a more promising approach than what we have now.
If we keep warehousing offenders without addressing any of the underlying issues that paved their path to prison in the first place, we’ll keep getting more of the same: people leaving prison even more hardened than when they went in, people who quickly fall back into their old lives and criminal activities, only to land back in jail. That doesn’t do them any good. It doesn’t do their families any good. And it doesn’t do our communities any good.
State evaluations of prisoner rehabilitation programs have already informed successful criminal justice reforms across the country. More than 30 state legislatures have enacted legislation that enabled them to reduce prison populations without sparking an increase in crime.
This solid record of success has led numerous law enforcement organizations—from the Fraternal Order of Police to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives—to express support for FIRST STEP.
Washington should follow the lead of state legislators and enact reforms that offer federal prisoners the kind of individualized, data–driven rehabilitation programs that can help them change their lives and return to their families with a better chance of becoming a blessing to them and their communities.
Kay Coles James is the president of The Heritage Foundation.