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Soaring costs, social-science data drive slash in state-prison populations

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As Earth’s most prolific jailer, America faces a thorny question: What do you do with millions of inmates when they return home? That challenge is at the heart of many bipartisan prison reforms that are sweeping the nation.

Georgia recently tackled this issue. The staunchly Republican state has become a widely recognized national leader in prison reform, creating a network of programs to help inmates when they are behind bars and after they are released. Georgia’s efforts were spurred by a sober realization: If the Peach State didn’t curtail its convict population, it would have to spend an additional $264 million in the next five years just to house inmates. This amounted to more than the state spends each year on any category other than education and health care.

Facing such formidable costs, Georgia — led by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal — began implementing an array of reforms that helped it begin to lower its spending on corrections.

“When you look at the way we have done corrections over the last decade, we’ve been using a very expensive brand of interventions, and in spite of the fact that it’s more expensive, we were getting worse results,” Jay Neal, the former director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry in Georgia, said.

Aside from expenses, another factor has driven reform: Social science data prove that inmates can be rehabilitated and set on the road to redemption with education and drug treatment programs that wind up being much cheaper than repeatedly imprisoning the same offenders.

Consider that a total of 17 states — such as Colorado, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, not exactly hotbeds of liberalism — have, in recent years, directed funding away from prison construction and toward “evidence-based” programs and services that aim to keep ex-offenders from returning to prison. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said many of these states have seen drops in recidivism rates and prison populations without harming public safety. For the first time since the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking the numbers in 1978, the state and federal prison populations both declined in 2014. The total decrease was by more than 15,000 inmates, the second-biggest annual reduction on record, bringing the nation’s prison population to its lowest level since 2005.

“We just know so much more now than we did 20, 30 years ago,” said Neal, noting that Georgia has begun to see a small drop in its recidivism rate. “So we’re making decisions based on a lot more information and a lot more knowledge of the individual — and having a better feel for what kind of outcomes we can expect, based on data and research, instead of just based on the gut feelings, which is unfortunately what a lot of policy was based on, decades ago.”

As most major reformers point out, more than 95 percent of America’s incarcerated eventually return to their communities — 600,000 every year. So what happens if there are no jobs or housing awaiting their return? They likely will commit more crime. For that reason, before he stepped down, Holder directed each of the 93 U.S. Attorneys to designate a prevention and reentry coordinator in his or her district.

With an eye toward helping ex-offenders secure employment, 19 states recently have adopted a policy known as “ban the box” — prohibiting employers from asking job applicants whether they ever have been  convicted of crimes. Those states include California (2010), Colorado (2012) and Delaware (2014), and this year saw the addition of Georgia, New York, Ohio and Virginia.

Reformers in Georgia and elsewhere also have set their sights on rolling back laws barring ex-cons from obtaining licenses in such fields as lawn care, massage therapy, barbering and auto repair.

In designing Georgia’s plan, widely praised for its comprehensiveness, Neal said the state borrowed heavily from existing programs in Texas and Michigan.

At the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)’s annual conference last July, one of the largest gatherings of conservative lawmakers, two separate sessions focused on helping states implement cheaper alternatives to incarceration. This illustrates just how far some Republicans have shifted from their traditionally tough-on-crime posture.

Nick Wachinski — CEO of Lexington National Insurance Corporation, which underwrites bail bonds — looked across a San Diego hotel ballroom packed with at least 100 conservative state legislators from around the country. When he asked ALEC’s guests how many of them were dealing with jail overcrowding, nearly all of them raised their hands.

“If we continue on the path we’re on now, the federal government will run out of money to afford the Bureau of Prisons in 2017,” Wachinski said.

Aryeh Lightstone, senior vice president for Copia, a New York-based digital education company, explained to the legislators that their state-level inmates desperately need schooling if they are going to avoid crime and thrive in the real world.

“According to the Department of Justice, over 70 percent of federal inmates can’t read above the fourth-grade level,” Lightstone said. “We need to have safety nets built in before it’s too late.”

In early October, the Justice Department announced it was preparing to release about 6,000 inmates to ease overcrowding and roll back the stringent penalties given to nonviolent drug dealers in the 1980s and 1990s.  This will be one of the largest discharges of federal inmates in American history.

“Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a nonviolent offense,” President Barack Obama said about the release action.

Obama even traveled to Oklahoma to visit a federal prison last summer — a presidential first. In a Nov. 2 visit to Newark, New Jersey, Obama noted that one out of every three working-age Americans has some sort of criminal record. This makes it tough for them to find work. He toured and hailed Integrity House, a Newark program that helps former inmates.

But ex-offenders have little chance of succeeding unless the local communities are open to the idea of absorbing them — giving them jobs, allowing them to rent apartments and accepting them without fear and discrimination.

About 20,000 men and women enter Georgia’s prison system every year, and about that many leave it. Where will they go?

“The majority come right back to the community where they grew up, where they got in trouble, the community that ended up leading them into the criminal justice system,” Neal said. “When we talk to these communities, the question we ask is: What do you want when they come back to your community? Do you want them to be in prison without the proper program and the proper support and resources available? Or do you want us to do everything we can, to use the best of our abilities and resources to prepare them to come back? If we reduce crimes committed, we reduce the victims of crime and ultimately we make the community a better place by bringing better citizens back home.”

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