Urban Wire What does successful correctional reform look like?
Nicole Levins
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Today, the federal prison population is 750 percent bigger than it was in 1980, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and making no measurable impact on public safety. What factors are driving this enormous growth? What can be done to stem the tide?

To come up with answers, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. The nine-person bipartisan team, chaired by former US Representatives J.C. Watts, Jr. and Alan Mollohan, will meet throughout 2015 to examine challenges in the federal corrections system and develop practical, data-driven policy responses. At the end of the year, members will present their findings and recommendations to Congress, the Department of Justice, and the president.

The Urban Institute is providing research, analysis, strategic guidance, and logistical support in partnership with the Center for Effective Public Policy  through a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

What do you need to develop a successful strategy for correctional reform? At yesterday's public meeting at the US Capitol, dozens of stakeholders shared what good reform looks like to them.

It helps offenders develop the skills they need to thrive on the outside: Both Donald Taylor, a youth specialist with the Missouri Division of Youth Services’ Girardot Center for Youth, and Glenn E. Martin, the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, stressed the importance of prison programming and education for successful reentry.

Working as a teacher’s assistant during his time in prison, Taylor observed inmates just going through the motions, falling asleep in class and not paying attention. If prison education programs offered the same incentives as drug treatment programs, he explained, we’d see more ex-offenders rejoining society with GEDs.

While in prison, Martin took advantage of a Pell Grant and obtained a college degree, but today’s inmates are no longer eligible for educational assistance. It’s hard enough to find employment with a criminal record—Martin told the task force that he contacted 50 potential employers before a reentry program connected him with a job—but an extra leg up can help.

“I’m not the exception,” said Martin. “I was exposed to exceptional opportunities.”

It addresses victims’ needs: Victims of crime want two things, testified Susan Howley of the National Center for Victims of Crime: to feel safe, and for offenders to be held accountable. “Victims want to be able to make some meaning of what happened to them,” she said.

To help them heal, victims should be kept informed about the treatment and training that their perpetrators receive, she explained. Going even further, reform could include tactics like restorative justice, which establishes a dialogue between victim and offender, and gives the victim a rare chance to have his or her voice heard.

Howley added that perpetrators of crime have often been victims themselves. To break the cycle, “we must do more to help young victims of crime,” she said.

As Martin put it: “I was the victim long before I was the offender.”

It protects prison employees: “As the prison population continues to grow, so does the danger for those who work inside these facilities,” said E.O. Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals. “Funding for increased staffing has not kept up with increased need.”

But Young was clear—an increase in funding would only treat the symptom, not cure the underlying condition. “We need common-sense reform that will keep our workers safe as they put it all on the line for the American people.” That reform, said Young, should seek to reduce the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences many federal offenders are subject to.

Following these invited witnesses, the Task Force heard public testimony from 25 individuals who registered on a first come, first serve basis. Speakers ranged from Right on Crime to the ACLU. They represented former federal prison employees, faith-based service providers, family members of federal prisoners, and the formerly incarcerated themselves.

Despite differences in speakers’ priorities and approaches , one thing is clear: there’s a near-universal hunger for correctional reform. “Not one person has said business as usual is cutting it,” said John Wetzel, task force member and secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Photo of Colson Task Force meeting by Kate Villarreal, Urban Institute

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center