Recently I wrote about Evan McMorris-Santoro’s profile of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. In the course of describing her work on mandatory minimum sentences, he explains something interesting about the politics involved in criminal justice reform.
The divide is now between so-called front-end advocates, who want changes to sentencing laws and penalties given to criminals when they first enter the system, and so-called back-end advocates who would rather leave sentencing alone and focus on parole eligibility and anti-recidivism programs.
The politics are simple, and crucial. Front-end changes are more risky, opening up politicians to attack ads saying they favored lower sentences for criminals and reduced penalties for drug dealers. The most ardent criminal justice advocates are pushing front-end changes. Back-end changes are an easier sell politically, but have much less impact on prison populations, according to advocates. They’re usually the most favored solution by politicians who are still closely tied to the tough-on-crime model of criminal justice that produced mandatory minimums for drug crimes in the first place.
It’s important to note that while Deputy AG Yates is focused almost exclusively on ensuring that front-end changes are included in any criminal justice reform legislation, the Obama administration is not ignoring back-end reforms. For example, the ongoing work of the Clemency Initiative that has already commuted the sentences of 89 prisoners is an example of back-end changes.
Josh Mitchell and Joe Palazzolo report that the Obama administration has decided to implement another back-end reform.
The Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system.
The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.
They go on to explain that this will be a 3-5 year experimental study on the impact of education on recidivism rates. That is mostly due to the fact that in 1994 Congress prohibited state and federal prisoners from getting access to Pell grants, but the Dept. of Education has the authority to temporarily waive rules in order to study their effectiveness.
I’d suggest that there’s not much doubt about what the results will be.
A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.
It is encouraging to watch as, one by one, the reactionary policies of the war on drugs and the 90’s era “tough on crime” craze are challenged and revoked.