Most People Know Our Prison System Is Messed Up, But Here's Why

A quick Q&A with Edwina Rogers, a former Presidential economic advisor, 20-year public policy expert, and current Executive Director of the Center for Prison Reform, a nonprofit lobbying Congress for crucial changes in Criminal Justice.

Q: I keep hearing in the news that there is a problem with the prison system in the U.S. What exactly is the issue?
Well, there’s more than one! For decades, there have been numerous problems with prisons at every level of government—Federal, State, and Local—and we’ve been in need of a transformation that does away with counterproductive and expensive forms of punishment. In a nutshell, there are just too many people getting stuck serving lengthy sentences for low-risk, nonviolent crimes—such as life in prison for intent to distribute marijuana, or 25-years-to-life for a “third strike” of petty theft. But the issues here go beyond the unfairness or cruelty of unnecessary prison time (which is often skewed toward low-income minorities); the truth is that our overpopulated correctional facilities do little to correct the problem of crime! In fact, the dead-end prison environment can serve as a catalyst for destruction and violence, priming prisoners for future bad behavior, rather than for successful reintegration into their communities. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested for a new crime within three years.

Q: So, to try and combat these problems, I hear there’s a “prison reform” movement? What is that, exactly?
The “prison reform” movement is threefold in pushing for much-needed changes in the way our government serves justice. First, it addresses the issue of excessive prison spending and how we can reduce both population and costs; second, it pushes for changes in “mandatory minimum” sentences for certain types of criminal behavior (that may not actually be so high-risk in and of themselves). Third, it examines how we can support rehabilitation and reentry programs to help prisoners readjust to society without committing further crimes as soon as they are released (this is also referred to as reducing the “recidivism rate”—the rate of re-offense, which of course, leads to re-incarceration). An evaluation from the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to ever reenter the prison population.

Q: Ok, got it. But who is ultimately responsible for fixing the problems? Is it a federal government issue, or a local one?
The best way to improve our prisons and to set an international example is to make adjustments at the federal level. All Americans should vote for legislators who will support these much-needed reforms. But our biggest focus at the moment is on Congress, where there are several promising bills in limbo at the moment. The Second Chance Act Reauthorization is currently moving through the House of Representatives. It improves upon a 2007 bill that provided more resources to coordinate reentry services and policies at both state and local levels. There’s also the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act making its way through the Senate. If passed, this bill would introduce an evaluation system to reward “time credits” to low-risk criminals (nonviolent inmates unlikely to reoffend), without introducing any additional spending initiatives. There is also great potential in the Smarter Sentencing Act (which has bills in both the House and Senate). All of these have at least some support from both political parties!

Q: In Congress, does either political party more strongly support or oppose these bills? What are their arguments for and against them?
Surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats are in a “cross-partisan” agreement about prison reform: neither side feels it would have much to lose in making some important changes happen. However, Republicans are more focused on the moral and fiscal benefits of “rehabilitation”, to ensure that criminals can become productive members of society while reducing a portion of the deficit related to prison over-expenditure. They are not as interested in funding new types of reentry programs; they’d like to reconfigure what’s already in place. Democrats are more willing to spend funds it may take to improve upon resources and programs, and are particularly interested in the social justice of lowering mandatory minimums and reducing sentences overall. The Republicans may see some of these measures as a threat to public safety, which is paramount to them. Both sides would be happy to lower the recidivism rate.

Q: Well if both sides support them, why haven’t these bills passed?
Well, there are specific disagreements and some Republican hesitations (about spending and public safety, for instance). But sadly, much of this is all just…“politicking”. We need to ask Congress to put prison reform at the top of its agenda, and we can help the “ask” by showing there is strong support from both national advocates and everyday citizens. It takes the Chair of a Congressional Committee to put a “floor vote” for any particular piece of legislation onto the calendar, and then it takes an incredible amount of predetermined support for a bill to get past the usual lengthy debates and resistance that keeps new laws from passing.

Q: What are some simple, practical steps I can take to help make prison reform a priority for the government?
We need to let Congress know that Americans care about making these reforms! Go to CPR's website and check out our many resources, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to speed. You can also write personal letters to your legislators in support of any one of the prison reform bills we’re following. If you’re really passionate about the movement, call or write to let other reform organizations know what we’re up to, and encourage them to collaborate with us. The stronger the voice of our coalition, the more we can accomplish.