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Justice Reform
The negative impact that individuals experience after imprisonment is well documented, but the challenges facing families when a loved one is incarcerated are much less well known. A new study designated “Every Second”, produced in collaboration with a Cornell University research team and FWD.us, surveyed the prevalence of family imprisonment by a nationwide representative sample of 4,041 adults ages 18 and older. The results are staggering.

Approximately 113 million people have a family member who has spent time in prison or jail. Today, there is an estimated 6.5 million people who have an immediate family member presently incarcerated in prison or jail. Research has demonstrated that even for a short period of imprisonment, additional penalties such as fines and fees, constraints on employment and housing, and the loss of fundamental human rights can be devastating for people long after they have served their sentences. This penalizes not only the one incarcerated, but every family member that relies on them for financial support and security.

It is often difficult and expensive to maintain contact with a family member in prison or jail. The results from the survey demonstrate that only 1 person in 4 could visit their immediate family member during their time in prison or jail. Research has shown that sustaining contact with supportive family members during imprisonment increases the probability of successful reintegration into their communities after release, and less likelihood to be imprisoned again.

The results of this revolutionary new research are a strong reminder of the work required to mitigate the problems caused by mass incarceration and the effects it has on American families. Fortunately, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that our current processes do not make us more secure and that the financial and human costs of mass incarceration far overshadow any public safety benefits. States across the country are implementing evidence-based reforms to reduce imprisonment and improve the possibility of successful reintegration. Many organizations, such as TRACKtech are helping people prosper in their communities after they’ve been released from incarceration and facilitating family reunification.
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Recidivism

Convicted Felon. This title carries with it a heavy stigma, and it can completely transform how a person is viewed by their community. On April 8th, 2019 Leroy Green of WLTX19 interviewed two prominent figures of the South Carolina community about the effects of recidivism. Professor Jennifer Trombley from Claflin University and Beasy Baybie, a DJ for HOT 103.9, are both convicted felons. Their stories are troubling, intriguing, and give a unique perspective of what it is like to have gone through the criminal justice system and made it out to become successful in their communities.

Beasy was incarcerated when she was still mothering her children. She did not know what to expect upon reentry and feels that she did not have adequate information on how to continue with her life outside bars. “I lost everything – clothes, car, house. I went to jail with kids and came out with kids, but I didn’t know how to parent them. Certain programs need to be included for women. We have expectations to be a mother, but how can I mother when I’m still broken? There needs to be more availability of forms of counseling and groups who have been incarcerated and come out the other side to raise their children. There are programs to help you with paperwork, IDs and Social Security cards to prepare you, but why aren’t there programs to prepare you for what to tell your children? There are parenting classes outside all the time, we need more in prison.”

They both believe that helping people with their reentry to society is incredibly important. Barriers to success need to be evaluated, and resources and programs to help with this need to be readily available. Mass incarceration does not work and has not been working for years. In five years, developing programs for recidivism has greatly cut down on the tax dollars spent on incarceration expenses and improved the recidivism rates for inmates in these programs. The recidivism rate fell 25% in 2014 and the state saved $491 million, while helping to improve the lives of generations of inmates.

There have been many monumental steps taken by the most recent presidents to overcome the ever-growing dilemma of recidivism. President Obama declared a National Reentry Week, in which he put into place 31 million in grants for job training for employment. These programs are evidence based and included many proven strategies to help those in need. He procured permanent support for housing, mentoring and parent programs, and put into motion the ban on the felony box in resumes for federal agencies. Prospective employees cannot be asked if they have a felony until after they have been offered employment. President Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act that is full of monumental justice reform, such as greatly reducing the time spent by those incarcerated with good behavior, and moving prisoners closer to their families. Even with these changes, there is still a great deal to go before we have solved this crisis.

“We need to figure out how to not even send them to jail,” states Baybie. “They wound up in prison because they have no hope or options. Their circumstances made it feel necessary to commit these crimes. There are some brilliant people in prison that shouldn’t be there.” Trombley agrees, mentioning that “most of those who are in jail are marginalized populations. They struggled before and were in terrible circumstances. Why do we think that without sufficient resources and help that when they get out the circumstances would be any different?”

Many people do not consider recidivism or the incarcerated population to be something that affects them, but it affects them more than they could imagine. “You should care because eventually, they get out, and having people come home and not understanding how to get jobs or parent or be part of the community affects us all. We are all connected, and it would benefit us to help them not go to prison, and if they do, to help them become more productive when they get out,” states Beasy. Eventually, they do get out, as 80-85% of inmates reenter society. They need to be equipped with the proper tools and strategies to acquire a job and be less likely to reoffend. The Second Chance Program in South Carolina helps to drive these positive changes and assist reentering civilians to acquire jobs and better their lives. Out of the 783 people who went through the program, 75% got jobs.

Both Beasy and Trombley have hope for these new programs and the positive changes to justice reform, but they still feel that felons are looked at with a debilitating stigma. “It feels like we’re segregated. People don’t think that we are like them, but we are people. Their children go to school with our children. They’re driving around the streets with them. We are people that exist,” Beasy says, sadly. Trombley concurs, stating that “it almost feels like people don’t want us to succeed. The stigma feels like they want us to fail.” Jail was not easy for either of them to endure, and when they got out, it was like a whole new terrifying world.

They share a unifying desire to better their lives and the lives of others after being released. They both are driven by their faith and want to leave the world with a positive message that lives longer than they do. “It’s all about purpose, living one day to the next.” They want to spread awareness of the struggles faced by those rejoining their communities and what can be done to help. Ultimately, they want to spread love.

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Justice Reform

Congress has begun to take steps in tackling the enormous fiscal and human costs associated with mass incarceration and the barriers affecting reintegration into society for those convicted of crimes. On Dec. 21, 2018, President Trump signed a bipartisan federal criminal justice legislation known as The First Step Act of 2018. The new law, which reduces sentences for some offenders and expands employment training and other educational programs, reflects a major focus on rehabilitation and money-saving policies by the Republican Party, a far cry from its punitive position in the 1980s.

The law requires a federal prisoner to be put in a federal prison as close as possible to the prisoner’s primary residence. This could quite possibly resolve the issue of family separation, which is one of the leading causes for problems during rehabilitation. The law also grants the possibility of low risk prisoners serving part of their sentences under community supervision, using electronic monitoring.

The First Step Act contains a multitude of other impressive justice reforms, such as broadening eligibility for elderly offenders to partake in compassionate release and home detention; provides funding for reentry and rehabilitative programs at the state level; restricts increased penalties and minimum penalties for previous drug crimes (not retroactive); requires the Bureau of Prisons to expand its opioid and heroin dependency treatment; restricts the use of juvenile solitary confinement; requires a “recidivism risk” evaluation of each inmate and provides incentives to participate in recurrence reduction programs; and provides the opportunity to receive “time credits” for certain detainees that can lead to earlier pre-release custody.

The epidemic of mass imprisonment in America has caused irreparable damage to countless individuals.  These reforms, while far from perfect, are essential for improving the lives of those currently incarcerated and their strained families.

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