Commentary: Texas saved $3B closing prisons. Why rehabilitation works


Around 2 million individuals are behind bars in America’s criminal justice system. Almost all of them will eventually return to the communities they left behind. As a nation, we are failing to serve those communities by not preparing former inmates to re-enter society and lead productive and fulfilling lives.

We are proud to be part of a new initiative, Safe Streets and Second Chances, that will work to combine policy reforms and re-entry programs that will measure success not by incarceration rates but by whether former inmates are rehabilitated and capable of redemption.

Safe Streets and Second Chances researchers will initially examine four states — Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Pennsylvania – and work to prepare people for re-entry beginning on Day One of their prison sentence. We will have an individualized plan in place within two months of incarceration. We’re confident this program will be a model that can be applied across the country.

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The numbers indicate the scope of the challenge: More than three out of four former inmates return to prison within five years of release, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That is a moral crime and a fiscal disaster. Worst of all, it is an unforgivable waste of human potential.

Far too many inmates are incarcerated when they could instead be rehabilitated. Of the 1.3 million people held in state prisons at the end of 2015, 197,200 had as their most serious offense a drug charge; 44,700 of those were for simple possession.

Nationally, more than 600,000 former inmates re-enter society every year. More than 100,000 of those are in our four targeted states. That’s a lot of damaged lives and broken families that could be saved.

Safe Streets and Second Chances will work with states to institute: substance abuse and psychiatric counseling for individuals with mental illnesses or drug addictions; educational and literacy programs; vocational programs that teach job skills; and mentoring capabilities. Such programs should involve faith leaders and public-private partnerships, so these sectors can be brought to bear on the rehabilitation and redemption of individuals. They should be created and administered by state officials, who are more attuned to the needs of the people and communities they serve — and because nearly 90 percent of those incarcerated are in state or county facilities.

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The emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation has a high dollar cost — $80 billion a year for incarceration, and an even higher cost in the diminution of the human spirit.

The system traps individuals in a soul-crushing cycle of poverty and prison, while doing next to nothing to make our streets safer or change the behavior of those who are going to be living among us when their time is served.

Proposals to address these challenges are not pie-in-sky do-gooderism; they are a clear-eyed assessment based on evidence and experience.

We must ensure that individuals coming out of prison are better people than when they entered. Preparations for re-entry and reintegration into communities must begin on the first day of incarceration, not 90 days before they are released, as often happens now.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature projected the state would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years. After implementing these and many other reforms, including expanded drug courts and mental health programs, crime dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s. The state closed four prisons and has plans to close four more — and the state saved $3 billion in the process.

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South Carolina enacted similar reforms: It cut its prison population by 14 percent, closed six prisons, and saved taxpayers $491 million.

Other states have seen the results and are instituting programs focusing on education and training that are showing success in rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism.

Everyone deserves a second chance. If three out of every four patients were dying in our hospitals — or if three out of four combat soldiers were ill-prepared to face the enemy — we’d do something about it in a hurry.

Three out of four people sitting in jail today will probably be back there if we don’t do something about it. In a hurry.

Holden is chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Rollins is president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.



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