News / USA

    US Prison Reform Is Bipartisan Issue for Candidates

    US Prison Reform Gets Bipartisan Support From Candidatesi
    Carolyn Presutti
    March 24, 2016 12:11 PM
    Several presidential hopefuls join chorus calling for reduced incarceration rate to save tax dollars and aid inmates and their families

    In the United States in the 1980s, lawmakers launched a war on drugs that led to tougher sentencing. The prison population exploded, with the nation dubiously setting the world’s highest incarceration rate – as many as 716 per 100,000 people, at one point. Today, candidates of both political parties, complaining about the high cost of housing inmates and the damage to inmates' families, are among those pressing for reforms.

    "We have a criminal justice system which is broken," Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has said repeatedly on the campaign trail.

    "We are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system," Republican candidate and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas contends.

    Obama presses for change

    President Barack Obama has made criminal justice reform one of his priorities in his final years in office. In late October, prompted by police-involved shootings and racial tensions, he devoted a weekly radio address to the problem.

    "Every year, we spend $80 billion in taxpayer dollars to keep people incarcerated," the president said, listing his efforts throughout the year that led to the address. He called for "smarter, fairer and more effective" criminal justice.    

    In Tennessee, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell Jr. shares that concern. A Republican, he was a guest at Obama's final State of the Union address in January, invited to sit in the first lady’s VIP section because of his efforts to stop inmates from re-offending.

    Luttrell has overseen creation of specialized courts for mental health and drug cases, for instance. He's been a force behind the Memphis/Shelby County Office of Re-entry, or MSCOR, which opened in the spring of 2015 to provide support for so-called "returning citizens" as they adjust to freedom.

    Training behind bars

    A former prison warden, Luttrell also supports efforts by community members to work with current and former inmates. One of MSCOR’s partners is HopeWorks, a faith-based charity that runs daily classes at the Shelby County Correctional Center, a medium- and maximum-security security prison in western Tennessee. Teachers give tips on jobs and on family, all sprinkled with a dose of religion.

    "The idea is to start becoming aware of how much we’re spending," Gilda Shelby, a specialist in job placement and retention, tells almost a dozen women gathered around her in the center’s multipurpose room.

    That's good advice for any finance class. But it carries a different meaning when the students can't go home.

    "It was God’s plan for me to come to prison. I never thought I’d pray and thank God for being in prison, but I did," says Doreen Owens, one of the inmates.

    Owens says she wanted to get off drugs in the past, but never had the resources or support until she was directed to HopeWorks in prison. She adds that its training has prepared her to rebuild family life and find work on the outside. "Today, I’m ready. I’m not going to stop" fighting to stay clean.

    Support outside corrections

    Inmate Sheree Head also is looking beyond the prison walls and toward a future that includes paid work. "I need to plan for savings, retirement plans and 401(k)," she said, referring to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan.

    On the outside, ex-offenders can find support at MSCOR. It’s open to any ex-offender living in Shelby County, whether the person was released from a facility the previous week or years earlier.

    At MSCOR's office in a poor Memphis neighborhood, individuals get assigned a case manager to help with social services such as job training, family reunification, healthcare, housing and transportation.  

    The MSCOR program also includes a life coaching class. Students meet for a class at least one evening or morning a month for several months, learning how to make better choices, manage anger and frustration, avoid trouble and find work.

    Recidivism risks

    Nationally, three out of five ex-offenders will end up back behind bars within three years. Luttrell said the MSCOR program is too new to have produced reliable statistics, though he suggests its wraparound services will help reduce recidivism.

    "Education is the overarching issue," he said. "Education is the tide that raises all boats. If you’ve got a strong education system, it has an impact on criminal behavior."  The mayor says the average education level of prisoners is less than eighth grade.

    The presidential candidates don't view criminal justice reform as a top campaign issue. But the momentum to do something beyond the state level could change that – after one of them becomes president.

    Carol Guensburg contributed to this report.

    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    This forum has been closed.
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora