There are many conversations happening across Arkansas about the criminal justice system, prison reform, and formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society.
Earlier this year, Gov. Hutchinson announced the Criminal Justice Reform Act, a $64 million plan focused on reducing recidivism, providing more jail space, and reforming sentencing and parole. Since that time, he has appointed members of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force to track the implementation and impact of reforms specified in the Act and members of the Arkansas Youth Justice Reform Board to provide additional juvenile justice oversight. I am optimistic that the Governor’s upcoming Restore Hope Summit will further complement these efforts.
In my capacity as an ordained minister, I spend time with the inmates at Tucker Maximum Security Prison. During my visits, I encounter men serving extended prison sentences, some of whom may never be released. As I listen to their stories and share biblical teachings of repentance and redemption, I’m reminded of the role effective policies can play in helping these residents of our state avoid returning to prison if and when they are released.
I have been encouraged to see Gov. Hutchinson’s leadership in collaborating with the faith and nonprofit communities to seek out ways to ensure that the 6,000 inmates re-entering Arkansas communities this year receive the support they need to become contributing members of society.
In addition to the grave social impact of high crime and mass incarceration, there is also a serious economic cost.
Each year, the state of Arkansas spends an average of more than $24,000 per inmate. While the state legislature has taken a stab at decreasing the cost of housing inmates through passage of the 2011 Public Safety Improvement Act, imagine if we invested a portion of that $24,000 per year per inmate into initiatives that put folks on the path to land a job that would allow them to support themselves and their families once they leave the correctional system.
One approach would be to offer a state tax incentive for small businesses and companies that hire nonviolent offenders who are skilled in a trade or who have earned a degree while incarcerated. This would enable employers to tap into a pool of trained workers to help them grow their businesses while supporting Arkansas’ overall economic development.
We should also consider ways to leverage federal funding. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program. The pilot will allow federal and state inmates to apply for a Pell Grant to take courses toward a professional or graduate degree, correctional education in which research shows a dollar invested saves four to five dollars on three-year re-incarceration costs.
In addition to state tax incentives and federal resources, we should also explore opportunities for public-private partnerships. The state of California, for example, has partnered with a nonprofit called The Last Mile to teach technology, entrepreneurship, and computer programming to inmates. This initiative has also engaged the business community with local companies agreeing to place graduates of the program in four-month paid internships upon release from prison.
My experience has shown me that if a man or woman comes out of prison and cannot find a job, he or she will figure out a way to provide for themselves and their family. A re-entry program that allows nonviolent offenders to earn a degree or learn a trade could make the difference between a former inmate becoming a burden on society once released and that same individual contributing to the local economy by providing skilled labor that Arkansas companies and small businesses need.
In my last article, I highlighted the value of community-oriented policing and how creating a culture of safety is foundational to ensuring a bright future for our cities and Arkansas as a whole. As we work to establish safety as a pillar of economic development, we should also be thoughtful about how to best reintegrate formerly incarcerated members of our communities.
Effective re-entry programs not only save valuable taxpayer dollars by reducing prison costs, but they also provide much-needed opportunities for former inmates to contribute to the economic future of our state rather than repeating past crimes.