In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump focused on themes of economic success, job creation, and praise for military and law enforcement professionals who strive to keep our communities safe and prosperous.
He also alluded to criminal justice reforms that can contribute to those same goals of increasing safety and prosperity.
Conservative states like Texas, Kentucky, Kansas, and Georgia have already proven that prison reform can help reduce recidivism rates and corrections spending.
And while Trump celebrated job creation, rising wages, a record-smashing stock market, and low unemployment, he now deserves credit for seizing an opportunity to invest in a safer, freer future for all Americans.
He said the following:
As tax cuts create new jobs, let’s invest in workforce development and let’s invest in job training, which we need so badly. Let’s open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential. …
As America regains its strength, opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.
That was not, however, Trump’s first time considering the issue.
Earlier this month, a White House spokesperson told The Hill that prison reform was addressed at a recent Camp David retreat and in roundtable discussions over the last six months with state and federal officials, policy experts, grassroots activists, and faith leaders.
In a White House meeting on criminal justice reform earlier this month, Trump told participants that his administration “is committed to helping inmates become productive law-abiding members of society” through mentoring, job-training programs, and drug addiction treatment.
The point, said Trump, is to carefully consider “opportunities to improve our prison system and promote public safety.”
According to The Hill, Trump noted that “[t]wo-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years.”
As Jon. D. Ponder, CEO of the nonprofit group Hope for Prisoners and a former inmate, noted in The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity, there are “high costs associated with reoffending and reincarceration, as the average cost to house an inmate is over $30,000 a year.”
Even “more serious are the effects of incarceration on individual persons,” Ponder wrote. “The very habits and behaviors that are nurtured and developed inside of correctional facilities are the exact opposite of what a successful lifestyle in mainstream society should mirror.”
Trump said at his January White House gathering, “We can help break this vicious cycle through job training … mentoring, and drug addiction treatment. … We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity for the future.”
Outside that meeting, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told The Daily Signal that “smart on crime policies” like mentoring have helped his state improve public safety.
“We’ve matched 7,500 prisoners who came out with a mentor on the outside … a lot of people [who] are generally faith-based that become involved in these programs. They mentor,” Brownback continued, “but they also engage the person’s soul. Everything is voluntary. We’ve dropped the recidivism rate in half with mentoring and really engaging the soul.”
Last year, the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice noted that finding employment “is frequently one of the most difficult tasks former offenders undertake. Survey results suggest that between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after release.”
Individuals who complete a sentence and earnestly seek a law-abiding life face an uncertain number of collateral consequences that flow from a criminal conviction, as well as occupational licensing requirements, that place many job opportunities out of reach.
Therefore, it is important that incarceration not be, as the U.S. Supreme Court described it in Barker v. Wingo (1972) (addressing a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial), “simply dead time”—time that “often means loss of a job … disrupts family life … enforces idleness,” and offers “little or no … rehabilitative programs.”
Heritage scholars have advocated practical incentives for eligible convicted offenders to work, while incarcerated, with nongovernment organizations that provide mentoring, education, job training, and other productive activities that are designed to reduce the likelihood that they return to prison.
Now, Trump and his staff can work with Congress to fine-tune pending legislation in the House (e.g., the Prison Reform and Redemption Act of 2017) and Senate (e.g., the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the CORRECTIONS Act) to do just that.
The need for criminal justice reform goes beyond prison walls, however, and into the criminal code itself.
For example, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would enact mens rea reform (Latin for “guilty mind,” referring to criminal intent in a crime).
A Heritage report on mens rea explains the need for Congress to adopt a default criminal intent standard to complete the plethora of statutes and regulations that define a criminal offense, but omit the second of two traditionally essential elements of a crime: a bad act and a bad intent.
Congress deserves credit for continuing its important work on criminal justice reform.
As Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, told the Washington Examiner, the president also deserves credit for recognizing an opportunity to change “expectations around prisons, which are failing to equip individuals to successfully return to society and succeed.”
Together with the Trump administration, lawmakers can take steps to improve how prisoners re-enter society as well as how criminal laws are written.
If the apparent success in Kansas and other conservative states is any guide, then the kind of reform Trump alluded to in his State of the Union address would be a positive step toward increasing public safety and prosperity in communities across the country.