(David Safavian) – Having once been a guest of the federal government in a lovely gated community called a prison, I have seen first-hand how much human potential we, as a society, waste.
Our prisons are filled with fundamentally good people who have made mistakes and are paying the price. We often forget that many of those behind bars are no different than the rest of us. After paying their debts to society, all they want is a good job, a safe place to live, and a stable, crime-free future.
Unfortunately, even these simple goals are often unattainable for those with a criminal record. There are 44,000 restrictions placed on ex-offenders, covering issues ranging from what kind of work you can do, to where you can live, and even whether you can complete your education. Once convicted, you are always a convict – or an ex-con – in the eyes of too many people. And that makes it harder to find a job or rent an apartment. For these forgotten men and women, redemption is just an illusion. Google never forgets, and society never really forgives. It’s no wonder that more than half of all ex-offenders return to a life of crime.
But things are slowly changing. Last year, President Trump saw his signature criminal justice legislation pass Congress and reach his desk. I was there when he signed it into law. The FIRST STEP Act didn’t make radical changes to our criminal justice system. America is still the number-one incarcerator on the planet, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. But the legislation addressed some of the most draconian sentencing laws on the books. It offered a pathway for non-violent prisoners who are terminally ill to spend their remaining days with their families, rather than behind bars. It required prisons to be more welcoming of mentors and volunteers, particularly those engaged in faith-based missions. And it made clear that the dangerous practice of shackling pregnant women cannot be tolerated.
But most importantly, the FIRST STEP Act focused on prison reform. The legislation directed the Bureau of Prisons to transform itself from merely being a warehouse of humanity to an agency whose mission is to prepare offenders for returning to life outside the walls. Central to this responsibility is a new system being developed by prison officials that incentivizes offenders to do the hard work of self-improvement.
Relying on evidence-based programs that have been proven effective at the state level, the federal prison system will offer job training, anger management, enhanced drug and alcohol treatment, and even college-level classes. The goal is to help those who have broken the law to become not just “job-ready” when they leave prison, but also “life-ready.”
Without a doubt these are important changes. But the federal government cannot do it alone.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once reflected on the transformative power of love, observing that “Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into friend.” Love is equally important for those seeking rehabilitation and redemption. But government programs cannot love. That is why nonprofits and community service organizations are so critical to the President’s vision for criminal justice.
One such organization in Las Vegas is “Hope for Prisoners.” Founded by Jon Pounder, an ex-offender himself, Hope for Prisoners offers support to those returning home from prison. While there are a number of such organizations, Hope for Prisoners is unique in that it involves law enforcement, too.
More than 60 police officers from the Las Vegas Metro Police Department serve as mentors and volunteers for ex-offenders at Hope for Prisoners. They provide counseling, training, and indeed love for formerly incarcerated people. These law enforcement officers – who put their lives on the line every day – are building mutual respect and trust, not just with those they work with at Hope for Prisoners, but with the community as a whole. In so doing, they not only help ex-offenders stay on the straight and narrow, they also make it safer to do their jobs – to serve and protect.
There are some who question the need for criminal justice reform legislation like the FIRST STEP Act. After all, they say, “don’t do the crime unless you can do the time.” Others ask why a law enforcement agency like Las Vegas Metro PD gets involved at all in helping people who have broken the law in the first place. The answer to both questions is simple: public safety.
Fully 95 percent of those who are sent to prison will return home someday. By helping them become better versions of themselves, we can make it less likely that they will return to a life of crime after they walk beyond the prison gate. And that makes us all safer.
David Safavian is the general counsel at the American Conservative Union Foundation and the Deputy Director of its Nolan Center for Justice.