One month into the new administration, the future of federal criminal justice reform remains uncertain. President Donald Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric so far in office has largely echoed what he said throughout the campaign. But, there have been some positive indicators that progress may still be possible under the new administration.
During his confirmation hearing Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, testified that he believed HUD could do more to help former prisoners successfully reintegrate back into society. He referred to “Ban the Box” initiatives, which remove the question that asks applicants to disclose whether they’ve been convicted of a crime. He also suggested he was open to exploring ways HUD could be directly involved in helping former prisoners find employment. And, he expressed support for partnering with the Department of Justice to provide grants for young people who reside or could reside in public housing so they can more successfully reintegrate back into their communities.
Supporting those initiatives would be a significant step. Every year, the hundreds of thousands of people released from state and federal prisons face significant obstacles to finding housing and employment. In urban areas, up to 50 percent of homeless people are formerly incarcerated. According to one study employers were 50 percent less likely to offer interviews to white applicants with criminal records than those without them. African American applicants were 64 percent less likely to be interviewed. Given these barriers, it is not surprising that about half of former prisoners find themselves back behind bars within three years of getting out. By increasing support and opportunities for former prisoners to find housing and employment, HUD could help disrupt this cycle — improving public safety and creating better outcomes for thousands of people.
In addition to Dr. Carson’s comments, Republican leadership in Congress also indicated they plan to advance criminal justice reform proposals in the coming year. In an interview late last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters that criminal justice reform was one of his goals for 2017 and that he had spoken with Democrats and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte about the issue. This follows Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s announcement the previous week that he intends to revive sentencing reform legislation.
By passing sentencing reform, Congress could take significant steps to reduce our oversized federal prison population. Today, there are almost 200,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons — the overwhelming majority serving sentences for non-violent crimes. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is currently operating 23 percent over capacity and consuming more than one -quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget. By reducing sentences for low-level crimes, lawmakers can reduce overcrowding in our federal prisons, save money and conserve finite law enforcement resources.
In today’s political climate, there are few issues where Republicans and Democrats can agree — criminal justice reform has proved to be one of them. With many partisan political battles on the horizon, it is critical we do not let areas of common ground get lost in the fray.