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Will Trump Back Criminal Justice Reform?

Since the divisive election, there has been plenty of speculation over whether President-Elect Donald Trump will support one of the few issues that has united right and left: the need for criminal justice reform.

His apparent pick for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has taken a tough sentence on prison sentencing. When disparities between the penalties for possessing powder cocaine and rock cocaine have been noted, he has suggested evening the scales by increasing the penalties for power cocaine. Sessions has also dismissed the argument that the prisons are filled with harmless people.

“Make no mistake,” he said last March, "federal prisons are not filled with low-level, non-violent drug possessors. According to the bureau of justice statistics … 99.7 percent of drug offenders in federal prison at the end of fiscal year 2012 were convicted of drug-trafficking offenses, not drug possession.” 

Whatever stance a Trump administration takes, it will face a strong push for reform on one of the few issues on which the libertarian Koch brothers and the liberal Geerge Soros agree.

A sign of this reform wave can be seen in the "Ban the Box" movement sweeping the nation.  According to the National Employment Law Project, over 150 cities and 24 states have adopted policies that call for employers to consider job applicants based on their qualifications first, and not their criminal record. In October, North Las Vegas became the latest city to join the movement. 

Not being able to secure employment promotes recidivism and creates an additional burden on the economy and taxpayers who have to support convicted felons and their families.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research based on Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimates that approximately $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP is lost each year due to the inability of convicted felons to find employment.

Not only is the economy suffering as a result of the stigma surrounding ex-cons, but failing to provide adequate support for people who have been in prison often leads them back to the same behavior that landed them in prison in the first place.

Between 2005 and 2010, an estimated 3 in 10 federal prisoners released to a term of community supervision were back in prison within 5 years, while nearly 6 in 10 state prisoners conditionally released returned in 5 years, a report found.

The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2014 was $30,619.85, or $83.89 per day, according to the Federal Register.

“One of the things that has been amazing is that there truly has been a bipartisan conversation that the way we spend our money in corrections is foolish,” Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, said. “And we’re not getting a good return on the investment.”

While advocates for criminal justice reform do agree that individuals who pose a threat to society do need to be kept behind bars, the argument that stricter rules on drug-related offences reduces crime doesn’t hold water, Vollen-Katz said.

“People like to believe that (stiffer punishment) controlled crime – it didn’t,” she said. “There are a lot of other things that account for changes in crime rates, and all the research indicates that one thing prison does not do is deter.”

Andrea Cantora, assistant professor for the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore, said another way to reduce recidivism is through education.

“Prison college programs are necessary if we truly want to improve the outcomes for people leaving prison,” she said. “Research shows these type of programs greatly reduce recidivism for people who participate in them, and they are cost-effective. These programs also increase a person’s ability to find meaningful work.”

Cantora is the director of the University of Baltimore’s Second Chance College Program offered at Jessup Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for men in Maryland. The program is part of the national experiment under the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Sites Initiative launched in July.

According the university, 28 students have enrolled so far this fall and will study toward a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies/Civic Engagement degree, with a minor in entrepreneurship.

Cantora said she hopes to see the Trump administration continue to support such programs, adding that many states have been able to reduce prison populations under the Justice Reinvestment Act - a federally funded initiative that helps states study their systems and implement evidence based practices.

“Through this initiative states have, and continue to, create and change policies that prevent and reduce the incarceration of low-risk, non-violent offenders. Many evidence-based initiatives have been supported by Republicans and I am hopefully that support will continue,” she said.