During the Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Milwaukee, Sanders made a bold pledge about criminal legal reform in the US.
Critics quickly claimed that his pledge was pie-in-the-sky, especially because so many prisoners are state prisoners, not federal prisoners.
But an important part of Sanders’ plan is the idea that prisoners deserve access to education and job training if we expect them to re-integrate into society after they’ve served their sentences.
And a new op-ed from the New York Times editorial board shows how Sanders’ goal is completely attainable, if we fundamentally shift our views of prisoners in the US.
Right now, more than three-quarters of prisoners who get released end up back in jail within five years, and more than half of those prisoners who are sent back to jail are actually sent back during the first year after their release.
The rate of nonviolent offenders in state and federal prisons has been climbing ever since Nixon declared his “war on drugs,” but it wasn’t until the 1994 crime bill that the prison population in the US really exploded.
For the past decade, federal and state lawmakers have been working to roll back some of the minimum sentencing laws and “three strike” laws that filled our state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders.
They’re working to get drug offenders into treatment instead of jail, and they’re working to change our parole system so that parolees don’t get sent back just on technicalities.
But as many studies show, the best and most cost effective way to decrease the prison population and reduce recidivism is to get prisoners the education and job training they need to enter the workforce once they’re released.
A report from the New York State Bar Association points out that an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree is needed for approximately 21 percent – ONE-FIFTH! – of the available jobs in the United States in any given year.
And another 40 percent of jobs require applicants to have the equivalent of a high school diploma.
In contrast, back in 2003 when the Department of Justice released a special report on education and correctional populations, 68 percent of state prisoners didn’t have a high school diploma, and only 12.7 percent of all prisoners had any college education.
That’s the problem, but is there any proof that educating inmates and preparing them for the job market actually works to reduce the recidivism rate?
Turns out there is, and it saves money.
According to the New York Times, “[a] prison education program created by Bard College in 2001 boasts a remarkable recidivism rate of 4 percent for inmates who merely participated in the program and 2.5 percent for those who earned degrees in prison.”
Fiscal conservatives should love the idea of providing free access to education and job training to prisoners, because research has shown that “[t]he public saves 4 to 5 dollars in re-imprisonment costs for every 1 dollar it spends on prison education.”
But it’s not just about cost savings, we need to make sure that society stops seeing people who come out of jail as “former inmates.” We need to start seeing them as “returning citizens.”
In Michael Moore’s newest film Where To Invade Next, the filmmaker visits the prisons in Norway, and what he finds is positively shocking.
Norway strives to maintain as much “normalcy” as possible for prisoners, to help prepare them for a life once they’re out.
In fact, the first principle of “normality” in Norway is that “[t]he punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed by the sentencing court. Therefore the sentenced offender has all the same rights as all other who live in Norway.”
So politicians in Norway make campaign stops to prisons, because the prisoners can still vote except in exceptional cases.
Prisoners in Norway have access to health care, including mental and behavioral health care, and they have access to job training and higher education.
If the US is to stop being the worst in the world when it comes to in incarceration rates, we need to start thinking and talking in terms of “restorative justice.”
That means that we need to make sure that everyone, including prisoners, has access to college and high school educations.
But we also need to “ban the box,” – that “have you ever been arrested” check-box that creates an near-impossible barrier for returning citizens to overcome both when applying to college and for jobs.
And we need to not just let our prisoners vote, but encourage them to participate in politics, so that they actually have a stake in our democracy, and so that they can more easily re-enter society as “returning citizens” instead of “former prisoners.”