On April 26, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. granted clemency to 78 people. Three were given full pardons and 75, all drug offenses, were provided a commutation of their sentence. The commutation allows for release from prison one year after serving a term of home confinement. Sadly, many of those placed on home confinement likely need to have the support of others while they get on their feet after years, some decades, in prison. The most important thing to their success is a job.
We have an incarceration, over-incarceration, problem in this country, which was acknowledged by both President Biden and his predecessor President Donald Trump who signed the First Step Act (FSA) into law in December 2018. Four years after FSA, the meaningful law is still being implemented and many in prison may not qualify for the benefits afforded some prisoners. However, it is a step in the right direction.
In April, the Biden administration announced “Second Chance Month,” to bring national attention to the obvious fact that we incarcerate too many people for far too long. This is no longer really a political issue but one of facts that our nation can no longer afford it. The Federal Bureau of Prisons budget has continued to rise over the past 9 years even as its prisoner population has dropped by over 25%. One driver of those increased costs has been healthcare; prescriptions, outside doctors appoints, medical procedures and chronic care treatment. The trend to get more inmates out of the justice system is going to continue and those that come out tend to succeed, but it takes a lot of work.
According to the First Step Act annual report (April 2022), recidivism rates for prisoners released as a result of FSA legislation and compassionate release from federal prison, particularly for drug and economic crime offenders, is relatively low; 15.4% and 4.5% respectively. However, recidivism is a measure of a moment in time and today’s job market is a strong one, making it somewhat easier for those coming out of prison to find some work. However, as time goes on, the challenges of carrying a felony conviction are many and lifelong. Both Biden and Trump have moved the country in the right direction on second chances but there is work to be done.
In July 2021, I interviewed Jeffrey Korzenik, Chief Investment Strategist at FifthThird Bank and author of the book “Untapped Talent,” who stated that the millions of people with felony records represent a talent pool that can solve many of our labor shortage issues … if only given a second chance. Korzenik’s pragmatic statistics cut through the common political divide and speak to a solution.
I spoke with Danny Feldman, co- founder of FRSH, a company committed to helping those with criminal convictions gain economic access and equity. One of their main focuses is second chance employment. Feldman said, “A job is the single most important key to keeping people out of prison and you will find those who have been given a second chance are bound to be more loyal for the opportunity.”
According to the Biden administration press release on Second Chance Month, “Every year, over 640,000 people are released from State and Federal prisons. More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record that creates significant barriers to employment, economic stability, and successful reentry into society. Thousands of legal and regulatory restrictions prevent these individuals from accessing employment, housing, voting, education, business licensing, and other basic opportunities. Because of these barriers, nearly 75 percent of people who were formerly incarcerated are still unemployed a year after being released.”
The Bureau of Prisons has received new funding under the FSA and one initiative is to expand education, vocational skills and even sharing of inspirational stories from those who were formerly incarcerated. It is a start but the challenges of moving away from the harm that mass incarceration has caused will be many, but overcoming them will be a benefit to us all.
Terrence Coffie, Adjunct Lecturer of New York University who has become a national voice of justice reform in America, and a part of the Motivational Speakers Bureau, where he speaks at various Federal Institutions on the importance of educational programs within correctional institutions told me, “These policies and initiatives are a step in the right direction, however, unless we begin to think critically and practically as to how we empower returning citizens with economic, employment, educational and housing access and opportunities these initiatives are questionable. These objectives cannot be achieved without collaborations with non-profit organizations, corporations, educational institutions and communities with direct expertise and best practice models, particularly utilizing the expertise of justice impacted citizens.”