Changing the Narrative About the Role of Prisons

As the era of “tough on crime” developed, this country lost sight of the fact that prisons should be about both punishment and rehabilitation. Instead, we were presented with an either/or: any suggestion that it was important to provide for the emotional, physical and educational needs of prisoners was seen as a threat to the need to punish them. As a result, most of the rehabilitative programs in prisons were eliminated.

I remember cringing when I heard stories about that. Even if you find it difficult to see the humanity in prisoners, the reality is that over 600,000 are released from state and federal prisons every year with these results:

According to a study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracking data for a five-year period ending in 2010, about two-thirds of all offenders incarcerated in state systems were arrested for a new crime within three years, and more than three-quarters were arrested within five years.

For federal inmates, the numbers were only moderately more encouraging. Nearly half of all the freed inmates were rearrested within eight years for a new crime or for violating conditions of their release, according to a separate study last month by the United States Sentencing Commission.

As Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently said:

“Certainly by providing individuals coming out of institutions with ways to become productive citizens, we reduce recidivism,” Lynch tells NPR in an interview. “What that means is we reduce crime. There are fewer victims when individuals have options — when they have job skills, when they have life skills, we break the cycle of children following their parents into institutions.”

That is why the Obama administration, under the leadership of AG Lynch, has launched the Roadmap to Reentry based on these five principles:

Principle I: Upon incarceration, every inmate should be provided an individualized reentry plan tailored to his or her risk of recidivism and programmatic needs.

Principle II: While incarcerated, each inmate should be provided education, employment training, life skills, substance abuse, mental health, and other programs that target their criminogenic needs and maximize their likelihood of success upon release.

Principle III: While incarcerated, each inmate should be provided the resources and opportunity to build and maintain family relationships, strengthening the support system available to them upon release.

Principle IV: During transition back to the community, halfway houses and supervised release programs should ensure individualized continuity of care for returning citizens.

Principle V: Before leaving custody, every person should be provided comprehensive reentry-related information and access to resources necessary to succeed in the community.

Because so many of these reforms depend on action at the state level, AG Lynch has been touring the country and visiting prisons to promote them. This is more than simply PR. It is a direct attempt to change the narrative about the role and function of prisons. For those who have claimed that this administration doesn’t make enough use of the so-called “bully pulpit”…there you have it. This is how it’s done.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .