For many who get in trouble with the law, going to prison can become a revolving-door experience. Breaking that cycle, and helping people get out and stay out of prison, can go a long way toward decreasing crime, reducing corrections costs and reforming the criminal justice system.
That’s why a relatively new anti-recidivism effort in Minnesota should be supported and expanded. A recent Star Tribune news story described Minnesota’s federal re-entry court, a program that’s making significant headway in reducing recidivism. The initiative approaches typical court proceedings in a different way. Rather than the typical adversarial model, judges and other federal criminal justice officials volunteer time to sit at a table with released ex-inmates who are at high risk to reoffend.
The program is one of about 60 across the nation, but is reportedly the only one that places participants with mentors from the community. Now in its third year, the effort has reduced recidivism from 73 percent of Minnesota’s highest-risk federal inmates to 27 percent. The story featured the 12th graduate of the 18-month program, a Hudson woman the story identified only by her first name, Moneer, who has turned her life around with the help of criminal justice officials.
Some of those who helped Moneer were the same officials who convicted and sent her to prison. The post-incarceration program gives former inmates the opportunity to connect regularly with the officials in a constructive way. That interaction tells them that the justice system is not just about punishment; that it also is invested in helping former inmates when they leave prison. Offenders too often leave jail and are unable to find jobs, housing or stability. With few options, it’s more likely they’ll return to lives of crime.
Keeping former offenders out of prison is a smart component of criminal justice reform on many levels. It’s good for the inmate because getting out and staying out of jail opens up opportunities to go to school, get training, find employment and help support a family.
Society benefits as well. The $30,000 per year it costs the federal government to support an inmate can be devoted to areas such as education, health care and infrastructure. Reducing prison recidivism can also decrease crime and allow more former offenders to become contributing members of their communities.
Criminal justice reform has received significant attention in recent years. Minnesota adopted a ban-the-box law, and discussions have been held about expunging records and reducing sentences for lower-level, nonviolent offenses. Some political candidates have raised the possibility of eliminating cash bail.
Nationally, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is leading an effort to rewrite the nation’s federal sentencing laws to reduce mandatory minimums for some nonviolent drug offenders and allow judges greater discretion in sentencing. The Trump administration has expressed interest in exploring those types of reform after the midterm elections.
In the meantime, Minnesota’s re-entry program is proving that it can be part of the solution.