Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

House debates major prison reform

Effective Compassion | Bill would shift federal incarceration to focus on reentry
by Rob Holmes
Posted 4/25/18, 03:41 pm

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote this week on a bill to change how federal prisons function. The law would direct correctional facilities to focus less on retribution and more on redemption of prisoners through training opportunities to prepare for a life on the outside, breaking the cycle of release and rearrest.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act would require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to assess each prisoner’s risk of recidivism and implement an individualized plan for rehabilitation based on personal needs such as addiction recovery, job skills training, mentoring programs, and faith-based classes. Early release could be an incentive for prisoners’ completion of recidivism reduction programs or restorative justice training. 

Forty-nine percent of all federal inmates released in 2005 were re-arrested within eight years for a new crime—most within the first two years and usually for assault or drug offenses, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which reported in 2016 that the younger the criminal and the longer his or her criminal history, the greater the likelihood of recidivism. The recidivism rate during the same period for state prisoners was worse: 76 percent.

The prison reform bill is loosely modeled on successful individualized reentry plans in Texas. Between 2005 and 2016, the state’s violent crime rate went down by 20 percent, according to FBI crime reports. Texas also saw a 25 percent decrease in the three-year recidivism rate for prisoners from 2004 to 2013, according to state data, and the state closed eight prisons, saving $2 billion. 

“Our … investments have helped to reduce technical revocations from parole and probation and have provided additional treatment capacity, resulting in a reduction of our prison population by 10,000 people,” said Bryan Collier, executive director of Texas Department of Criminal Justice, last year.

South Carolina, Georgia, New York, Michigan, and Oklahoma have also lowered recidivism through reentry programs.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., introduced the reform bill, which has garnered support from lawmakers from both parties as well as from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Prison Fellowship. President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., also endorse the plan.

Kushner has made prison reform a personal mission and appears to have the support of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, known for his preference for stiff sentencing. Kushner’s passion for reform is thought to stem from a firsthand encounter with the prison system during the year his father, Charles Kushner, spent in federal prison in Alabama for tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions.

But in an unexpected turn of events this week, ABC News reported that Jeffries, the representative from New York, might abandon support for the bill he helped craft due to a contentious add-on about concealed-carry weapons. 

Jeffries has not commented, but according to current wording of the bill summary, the only expansion in question “require[s] the BOP to allow federal correctional officers to securely store and carry concealed firearms on BOP premises outside the security perimeter of a prison.”

A coalition of civil rights groups has opposed the bill over its focus on prison reform without sentencing reform, which they say is the “first step towards improving our justice system” and reducing a swollen prison population.

Creative Commons/Photo by Jorge Corona Creative Commons/Photo by Jorge Corona A street musician in Austin, Texas

Austin borrows bitcoin technology to help homeless

Austin, Texas, is piloting a digital solution to the problem of homeless people maintaining their personal records: a blockchain ledger.

Using blockchain technology—a shared, permanent, and unalterable ledger used to record bitcoin transactions—Austin will link all service history and personal data for an individual. People would always have access to their own data and be able to show providers what treatment or services they have had in the past.

Lost personal documents create barriers for homeless people trying to prove work history or identity and eligibility for services. “It really prevents you from going about and doing the sort of activities that allow you to transition out of homelessness,” said Sly Majid, Austin’s chief services officer.

The genius of blockchain records is that encrypted information may be distributed like a webpage, but not copied or altered, making available data that easily gets misplaced because of multiple moves or lost when a homeless person’s backpack is stolen.

Blocks, or links of information, can be added to a person’s blockchain without damaging or changing the previous blocks. The technology has been likened to the internet in its robustness since it relies on decentralization: No single person controls information added to the shared blockchain, like a file showing when a homeless person first arrived at a certain shelter, and it has no single “point of failure.” 

But the obvious concern over a shared public database of one’s records is privacy and government surveillance. 

“If a society adopts a single system … where transactions are recorded on a single database as they are with bitcoin, it is possible—even likely—that governments will successfully attempt to control it,” wrote Kadhim Shubber, speaking of financial transactions in the Financial Times.

Though concerns for security, personal privacy, and liberty all arise when it comes to handling and distributing people’s data, officials believe the chaining of data for the homeless will help them control their own lives better and vouch for themselves as they navigate life in the city with no fixed abode.

Austin’s idea won the city a ranking on the 2018 Champion Cities list compiled by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the 2018 Mayors Challenge. The Texas capital plans a six-month testing phase to show whether the idea has “the potential to spread—and succeed in—other cities” and could net a grand prize of $5 million. —R.H.

Associated Press/U.S. Customs and Border Protection Associated Press/U.S. Customs and Border Protection An example of a type of bollard wall that will replace existing wire mesh and vehicle barriers near the Santa Teresa, N.M., port of entry into the United States

Building the wall

New construction has begun on several sections of wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. 

“We’re on track to replace 20 miles of primary vehicle barrier in Santa Teresa, N.M.,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello said in a statement last month. 

Other building goals include improving 14 miles of wall in San Diego County, Calif., and 4 miles at the heavily used El Paso, Texas, crossing. Vitiello expects nearly 1,000 miles of the 2,000-mile border will be walled and have infrastructure improvements like levees along the Rio Grande River. Other existing sections of opaque wall will be replaced with steel bollards that allow agents to see through the wall.

Last year, Congress approved $1.6 billion for upgrades, planning, and building some 100 miles of new construction on the wall in the Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2018. President Donald Trump signed the bill in March despite the funding falling short of the $25 billion he sought.

Clueless about global poverty?

A 2014 survey showed 84 percent of Americans were unaware of the huge gain worldwide in the fight against poverty during the past few decades. 

“Over the last 30 years, the percent of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has decreased from 52 percent to 21 percent,” the study found. But 67 percent of survey respondents thought global poverty was increasing, and 21 percent thought nothing could be done to stop it, according to research sponsored by Barna and Compassion International. 

While one-fifth of the world still lives in extra-dire straits, the survey noted that ignorance of the gain likely contributed to a lack of American interest in and action toward eliminating poverty. Christians led the pack in donating time and money to church and nonprofit activities aiming “to help the global poor.” 

Many people noted the biggest barrier to giving was figuring out which poverty-fighting organizations are trustworthy.

Barbara Bush: Legacy in literacy

Barbara Bush was the wife of a U.S. president and the mother of another, but in poverty-fighting circles she is also remembered as a champion for adult and family literacy. “Let your children see you read,” she once said, advocating for improved literacy, starting at home, as a means of helping the poor. She had a Biblical view of poverty as a family and community issue, not just an individual battleground. Her legacy for supporting families is kept alive by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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