Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Push Back, Pell Grants and Puppies

Push to Scale Back Minimum Sentences Gains Momentum:

Even in a Congress riven by partisanship, the priorities of libertarian-leaning Republicans and left-leaning Democrats have come together, led by the example of several states that have adopted similar policies to reduce their prison costs.

As senators work to meld several proposals into one bill, one important change would be to expand the so-called safety-valve provisions that give judges discretion to sentence low-level drug offenders to less time in prison than the required mandatory minimum term if they meet certain requirements.

Proponents of changes to sentencing laws are now staring at what they say is the first real open window in decades to make meaningful change, and they are fearful that lawmakers may tinker around the edges of a prison overhaul — allowing people to leave jail early for good behavior and increasing services for juveniles — while leaving the thorny sentencing issue to fester.
Good idea to address it head on too. Especially after John Oliver did a blistering segment last week on the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Favorite takeaway line: “Prison sentences are a lot like penises. If they’re used correctly, even a short one can do the trick.”  

LOL. The article also addresses the issue of recidivism. 
Another would allow lower-risk prisoners to participate in recidivism programs to earn up to a 25 percent reduction of their sentence. Lawmakers would also like to create more alternatives for low-level drug offenders. Nearly half of all current federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes.
I was stunned to read in the WSJ yesterday that the Obama administration is restoring the availability of Pell Grants to prisoners.
The Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system.

The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.

Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens.
Funny, the article doesn't mention that the Senator who led the charge on banning Pell grants for inmates was the Vice President himself, Joe Biden. Read the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (aka "The Biden Bill") again.

The reason this is so important is that a college degree in prison is the only known recidivism program to work at a rate of 95% or greater. Meaning, less than 5% of inmates who get a degree in prison will recidivate and end up back in prison...the other 95% will never come back.

But during the myopia and hysteria of the mid-90's, Pell grants and higher education were whacked, even by so-called liberals like Biden and Clinton.

I get the middle class push back. "I can't afford to send my own kid to college, why should we pay for a bunch of rapists or molesters to get bachelors or masters degrees?" Fair enough. But that's more of an issue for free higher education for everyone, and not so much about denying prisoners the opportunity.

And lost in all the chatter about who's paying for what, is the simple fact that you are going to pay for it one way or the other anyway. The question is: do you want to pay for it in terms of a college education, practically guaranteeing that they'll never come back to prison? Or do you want to pay for more prison cells, three hots and a cot, free healthcare, and a revolving turnstile of imprisonment, release, imprisonment, ad nauseum? Your choice.

Meanwhile, another recidivism program that works...puppies!
Mr. Perry says he is tremendously proud of the Auburn partnership, crediting it with improving inmates’ morale and behavior. “The incident rate in that unit is almost nonexistent,” he said. “That dog program just kind of calms everyone.”

Not every inmate is eligible. To apply, inmates must have a high school diploma or its equivalent and be free of disciplinary reports for a year — a considerable challenge, Mr. Perry said.

“These aren’t heinous individuals,” he said. “They’re men who’ve made mistakes, serious ones, and they deserve to be forgiven. And the sooner they can forgive themselves, the sooner we can.”
Working with the dogs, he said, speeds that process. “A lot of these guys have never been given a lot of responsibility, and this is their chance not only to be a responsible adult but a responsible citizen,” he said.
It's a win win...the dogs are being trained for search and rescue, IEDs and drugs, guide responsibilities, etc., the inmates are being changed by the responsibility.

My goodness. Puppies, Pell grants, and bipartisan push back to the mandatory minimum madness of the 1990's. Are we really turning a corner here in crime and punishment in 2015? Is the correctional-industrial complex an endangered species?

UPDATE: This Chronicle of Higher Ed piece predicts pushback against the Pell grant pilot program (can I get any more alliterative?):
Rep. Christopher C. Collins, a New York Republican whose district includes the Attica prison, has already introduced legislation that would bar the department from doing so. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who is chairman of the Senate education committee, has said the administration does not have the authority to run the pilot program.

Cornell’s Mr. Scott wondered whether the topic could become an issue in the 2016 presidential race. "Americans are really divided on this," he said. But, he said, the program could also spark action from states that could introduce their own tuition-assistance programs before the broader federal debate winds down.
Stay tuned.

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