Obama administration plans a 3- to 5-year test to see if college classes help reduce prison recividism. Read the full Wall Street Journal article here.


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.

Between the mid-1990s and 2013, the U.S. prison population doubled to about 1.6 million inmates, many of them repeat offenders, Justice Department figures show. Members of both parties—including President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—have called for a broad examination of criminal justice, such as rewriting sentencing guidelines.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.

Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.

An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Asked Monday whether the agency would restore Pell grants for prisoners, Mr. Duncan told reporters, “Stay tuned.”

Stephen Steurer, head of the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group, said two Education Department officials told him at a conference early this month the agency was moving to restore Pell grants for prisoners and allow many colleges and universities to participate. Money from the grants would directly reimburse institutions for the cost of delivering courses in prisons rather than go to prisoners, Mr. Steurer said.

“It will be substantial enough to create some data and to create enough information for some evaluation,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D., Ill.), who is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Donna Edwards (D., Md.) to permanently restore Pell grants for prisoners.

“I think the political landscape has actually changed since the 1990s,” said Ms. Edwards. “We haven’t really been able to get a handle on recidivism. We have to present some training and opportunities. These are programs that work.”

She said her bill would cost relatively little up front—in the tens of millions of dollars—while having the potential to cut societal costs over the long term by reducing recidivism rates. Maryland spends nearly $40,000 a year per prisoner, she said.

But spending tax dollars on college for prisoners strikes many as an affront to families that have borrowed heavily in recent years to cope with skyrocketing college costs, causing student debt to soar to $1.3 trillion. “If we really want to keep people out of prison, we need to promote education at younger ages,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.).

Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tabled a plan to use state dollars on in-prison college courses because of opposition from lawmakers. But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in June that includes $12 million to promote statewide priorities, including college classes in state prison, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, whose 2014 bill paved the way for an agreement between California corrections officials and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges. Ms. Hancock said classes could begin as soon as this fall.

The administration’s plan could open the White House to new charges that it is subverting the will of Congress. The administration has been criticized for using executive powers to change immigration policy.

There are currently a limited number of college courses for prisoners that draw mostly on private funding, Mr. Steurer said. Federal funding would expand opportunities for people like Wesley Caines, 49, who left a New York prison in the spring of 2014 after serving more than two decades on a murder charge.

While incarcerated at Hudson County Correctional Facility, he used a privately funded program to earn an associate degree, then a bachelor’s and a master’s, after studying the work of Nietzsche and W.E.B. Du Bois. He’s now working for a Brooklyn firm helping other ex-offenders re-enter society. “Prison is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing environments that any human being could find themselves in,” he said. “One of the best ways to make transformative gains is to be educated. It’s not an abstract thing, it’s a very tangible thing. It teaches you critical thinking. It allows you to look at yourself, your choices, your behavior, and the consequences of them.”

Houston timber company, Building Products Plus, has had great success hiring PEP graduates. Read the full PR Underground article here.

PR underground

Building Products Plus, a Houston-based company that manufactures and supplies extended life structural building materials, has found success in hiring employees through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, (PEP). Having hired seven program graduates within the last year, the company’s President, Dorian Benn, is “more than pleased” with the results of these employees. Of the seven BPP hired during the last year, five have stayed and made a real difference both in their own lives and as employees.

The PEP Program

The PEP program operates in 60+ prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with all operations based out of the Cleveland Correctional Center. In 2013 Baylor University researchers conducted a study of PEP’s results vs other similar programs in Texas. PEP outperformed the other nine rehabilitation programs’ recidivism rates by 70%.

While program members must complete and present a business plan, including a multi-year financial plan, in order to graduate, they do not have to start the business once released. They are encouraged to find employment using the skills and knowledge obtained while in the program, and that might not always be by starting their own business.

Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program is proud to report that since the program began 11 years ago, 185 graduates of the 1100 total have started businesses. Of those 185, four of those business are forecasted to gross $1 million, each, this year alone, as well as creating 25 jobs, combined. “Don’t judge the man by the label. Never assume he’s not capable of living a different life.” Smith says.

An “Attitude of Gratitude”

Building Products Plus is certainly an advocate for this program. They have an “attitude of gratitude” says Benn, “I don’t look at them any differently. They needed a job, we had an opening. They are grateful and eager to succeed. It’s a better life.”

One such program graduate, Rocky Arnold, was hired as a Mill Coordinator over a year ago. Since then he has been promoted to Mill Supervisor, and then to Operations Manager. He often returns to the program he is immensely thankful for and mentors those still going through the program. BPP has hired all ranges of program graduates from truck drivers to salesmen. Their training and experiences from previous jobs and education combined with life skills and spiritual connections made in the PEP are key ingredients for their success.

Smith states that there aren’t any official partnerships with specific businesses, “just good relationships forged by the graduates themselves,” which appears to work well. Based on the success of the employees at Building Products Plus, Benn intends to remain an active business partner of the PEP, and adds “The program shows them that they can have a better life. They can succeed honestly and with hard work their reintegration isn’t nearly as scary or unsure. They have a solid base and support. We’re happy we found them.”

My name is Jason and I was asked to write about my experience with PEP. When considering how a program has changed your life, it is easy to get caught up in the rites and rituals and begin to think of that program, any program, as a series of steps to be taken to reach a goal.

To me, PEP is so much more than that. To be sure, there are procedures and there are rites of passage, but I cannot look at these as mere steps; they are tools to be used, remembered, called upon in times of need, and passed on to those who come after us. PEP is a living, breathing entity embodied by the men trying to change their lives, the PEP staff, and the volunteers that offer so much encouragement.

Jason Bowles

I joined the Navy at 18, straight out of high school, and thought that I had the world pretty much figured out. The problem was that there was one thing I did not completely understand; I had no real idea of who I was. I allowed myself to be defined by the people around me and when I did not fit in with them, a few drinks made everything go a little more smoothly. I had no intention of becoming an alcoholic, but then who does?

Fast forward a couple of decades and my life was in shambles. I had spent the greater part of my adult life either on a barstool, recovering from my last hangover, or planning my next one. I knew my life was wasted and going nowhere, but I had no earthly idea how to change it, so I took the easy way and did nothing to make any improvements whatsoever. Like alcoholics the world over, I hid in a bottle and perpetuated my downward spiral.

I had never thought of myself as someone who would end up in prison and I certainly never saw incarceration as any kind of rescue. Like most of society, I viewed the penal system as a way to deal with people who did not want to play by the rules. Also like most of society, I was blind to my own hypocrisy and ignored the fact that I was no paragon of virtue.

Because of my continued alcohol abuse, I quickly learned how easily one can be sucked in and spit out by the judicial system. I also learned there is hope for everyone, no matter if they are locked in a cell by the state or locked into a pattern of self-destruction by their own choices. Hope abounds for anyone willing to work to make a better life.

For me, PEP is a life saver. I learned how much I was truly hurting myself and everyone around me by finding excuses to indulge in my weaknesses. I learned that I can be a part of a group without having to be just like everyone in it. I found out that fitting in does not mean conforming, it means contributing. Most importantly, I learned how to live with the fact that I am flawed. I have made mistakes in the past and I will make more in the future, but those mistakes do not define me; how I recover from them does.

My name is Jason and I am many things; a veteran, a son, a brother, an alcoholic, a convicted felon, a PEP graduate and a productive member of society.

Jason B.
Class 18 Graduate

The following testimonial was written by PEP Class 13 Grad, Greg L.

I have arrived at this point in my life because of the decisions I made a long time ago. To be an asset to this world means being a good person, a good son, brother, husband, coworker, neighbor and member of society. I am serious about the things that I have said. I have shown that and feel as though I have made it a priority. I have put my best foot forward and the world has noticed.

Greg Labeet

I lived behind bars from the ages of 15-26. As a high school dropout with no work history or a stable family member to call upon, and an extensive criminal history, life was bleak… but I was hungry and had direction!

I was released in mid-2010 and I opted to go home because my family needed me and I felt that I was equipped to lead. The first application I turned in – I got the job! What was really amazing about that was that the position was sought after by applicants and employees. The interviewer looked down at my application towards “The dreaded background portion”, looked up, looked back down and closed the application. Then he asked when I would be able to start … thank you Lord! … When you’re serious about being an asset to this world, society will recognize it and respond accordingly.

I’ve obtained much of what I dreamed about in prison. PEP has equipped me with confidence. I have been able to achieve much more than I ever thought, because my views about my worth were limited. It has been four years in the making as I write this to you and I am living a more productive life than ever. There are many topics that I could speak upon but within all of them YOU the executive volunteer and donor have played a major role, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

With Love and Respect,

Gregory L.
Class 13 Graduate

The following was written by PEP Class 16 Graduate, Jason M.

God is a master craftsman, and He has a large tool box! Inside this tool box are tools that He uses to shape, mold, and make a man into what He destined and determined him to be in eternity past.

Jason Moore

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) was one of the many tools that God used to shape me into the man I am today. I find it divinely strategic that God waited until just the right time before introducing me to PEP. I was 37 years old and had over 12 years done on a 15-year sentence for murder when my life intersected with PEP.

My life in prison up to this point had been pretty stable and structured. God was using me to teach and preach His Word. I was a pastor and mentor to many behind bars, and in their eyes and in my own, naively, I was ready for reentry. So we thought…

However, after my very first day of involvement with PEP, I quickly discovered that there were things God wanted to pull out of me and put into me, that before my release and reentry, God would work what He both needed and wanted to do in me and through me.

And he used PEP to do exactly that!

PEP was the tool God used to challenge me and make me uncomfortable in new ways. It was the tool that helped prepare me for the curveballs and the blows below the belt that this world often throws.

Since my release and reentry, PEP is still playing a similar role in my life. I am actually now working for the very program that God used to work on me. It’s still a tool in God’s hand, and He is still using it to make me into the man He created and called me to be. I’m now also a husband, father, and strong pillar in the city, community, and church. I’m almost tempted to say I’m a success, but I’m wise enough to know that when the trumpet blows, and the roll is called up yonder, God and only God will determine who is successful and unsuccessful!

Until then, I’m determined to live life “between the wings” for God’s glory and the furtherance of God’s story.

In His Service,
Jason M.
Class 16 Graduate & PEP Transition Coordinator

Robert is the youngest valedictorian in the history of PEP. Robert graduated from Memorial HS in Houston and based on his academic success was able to enroll as a sophomore at A&M. He went there to study chemical engineering, and quickly joined a fraternity and began drinking heavily. As his addiction grew he lost various privileges and campus jobs, and he began to get more involved in selling drugs as well. After a particular deal went bad, Robert found himself in a very difficult legal predicament, and he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Robert joined PEP from another unit and was transferred first to Estes and then to Cleveland to participate in PEP. While he knew little about PEP at first, he had heard about it from someone in the faith based dorm that he was living in, and decided to apply. He enjoyed it immediately, and served as a Men’s Life leader during the Leadership Academy phase. He continued to work hard during the Business Plan phase, and ultimately did well enough to become the valedictorian of Class 23 Stellar.

Robert Reese

In addition to this honor, Robert so embodied all ten driving values that he was elected “Mr. PEP” by his classmates. He said that the Fresh Start Outlook meant that he could have his dignity restored, and Accountability was the most challenging and most difficult value to take on.

He said that he found the entire program to be “the thing” that turned his prison time and experience into a great part of his maturation. Robert also said that as he entered prison his future looked very bleak, and his dreams disappeared. PEP has given him the positive attitude and desire and drive to fight for his dreams again. He hopes to re-enter A & M and graduate with his degree in chemical engineering a few years later than expected. Robert noted, “No man is an island, and with this brotherhood I cannot fail. I am the only person who stands in the way of my dreams, and knowing myself is the first step in overcoming this obstacle.”

Stellar 23’s graduation included 97 men who were all successful winners of the Business Plan Competition, and more than 230 family members. After a warm welcome from Mike Humphrey, Chairman of the PEP Governing Board, and Warden Jordan of the Cleveland Correctional Center, the men were encouraged by Davis, a member of Class 8, and a recent graduate of the Mays School of Business at Texas A&M. Davis shared a memorable story of the life of a sea turtle and its success in leaving the nest, scrambling over his brothers, and surviving a host of predators before being able to swim freely in the sea.

Grad Group

There were so many wonderful family reunions during the afternoon, and everyone was able to enjoy a lot of time visiting with family members. A group of wonderful volunteers from Faithbridge United Methodist Church led by Jon and Judy Goodale and Nancy and Katie Kennedy provided a great reception and the perfect environment to celebrate the achievements of this extraordinary group of men.

Class 23

One of the long awaited reunions was between Dustin and his father. Dustin’s mom and dad split shortly after he was born, and so the last time Edward had seen Dustin was when he was three weeks old. Edward lives in Michigan, where he is a long haul truck driver. Dustin’s dad missed his son over the years and wanted to reconnect – he just didn’t know how. He even named his oldest boy in his second marriage “Dustin” in honor of his first son he felt he had left behind. Through Dustin’s half-brothers and half-sisters reconnecting with each other, they ultimately were able to help Edward understand where Dustin was. Edward and Dustin’s mother, Pam, had also reconnected in the intervening years. As the Class 23 graduation was coming up, Dustin’s half-sisters made plans to attend, and encouraged their mother and Dustin’s father to attend as well. Edward and Pam made the 1300 mike drive down from Michigan over two days in order to be with Dustin and celebrate this achievement. Even a breakdown with the car did not keep them from being there, so that Edward and Dustin could see each other for the first time in 35 years.
Dustin has served with the Catholic chaplain at Cleveland, and assists with both the monthly mass as well as the weekly Eucharistic services. He is also involved with the RCIA program. Dustin is also passionate about his recovery process.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the winner of the 2015 Business Plan Competition….the gentlemen of Class 23 Stellar!”

With these words, Bert Smith, Chief Empowerment Officer of PEP, recognized the fact that every man who is a member of this great class is a winner and has overcome great odds to finish the Business Plan Competition.
However, every competition does need to have some finalists, and this year the four finalists presented their ideas on Friday morning to an excited group of participants and executive volunteers. Each of the four had a unique and interesting idea for a business that they could build, and all were well prepared and very strong in the final round of presentations. Barry with Applied Receptacle Management (“We’re your frontline defense against trash backlash!”), and Gary as CEO and Founder of The Ink Eraser (“Where tattoo mistakes are erased with a laser”) shared some very different ideas. Barry’s plan was for a system that would clean trash and waste receptacles for both commercial and residential customers, using biodegradable and eco-friendly chemicals that could be recycled. Gary’s plan was for a tattoo removal business that could assist all those people that had tattoo regret, or simply wanted to reduce their visible tattoos before pursuing employment in the free world. Barry’s presentation and plan ultimately won the overall competition.

Bert Bucks

Barry’s previous career as an oil and gas land man and well operator gave him plenty of business experience, although the waste cleaning business was developed during his time in PEP. He had a lot of conversations with his classmates and the PEP staff, as well as those executives that assisted him during the 6 month business plan process. He describes that process as very helpful, and critical to the development of a winning plan. When asked how quickly Applied Receptacle Management will be built, Barry said “As quickly as possible, as at 42 years old, I have no time to waste.” He is planning to launch the business in the Dallas area first, and then hopefully it will grow quickly to meet his projection of $1,800,000 in revenue within the first year or two. He is looking forward to being reunited with a teenage daughter in Oklahoma, as well as a 7 year old and 9 year old in the Dallas area.

Gary has served 18 years in prison, and at 52, had not seen his sons in 14 years. His twin sons are now 23, and both were able to attend Gary’s graduation along with their wives. Gary is also a grandfather twice over, as one grandson was born in January and the other was born in March. His daughter-in-law also acknowledged Gary as the winner of the Integrity award, and said, “That’s exactly the value that you embody.” Gary has also recently been given responsibility for conducting a specific Baptist service at the Cleveland unit, after TDC allowed this service to be established.


Gary’s tattoo removal service is also a way for him to provide a free world embodiment of the Fresh Start value, so the men do not have to have tattoos. He had a lot of valuable support for his business plan from his business plan advisor, Nancy White, who also serves on the Houston Advisory Board. “Nancy’s input was very helpful,” said Gary, “as was that of her husband Tim, and her brother David Bowman.” Gary is passionate about giving back to PEP and all the men that it serves, and he shared just how important it is to help all the men he can. “PEP is helping men to see how to turn on the light in their lives, and when you turn on the light switch, all the darkness disappears.”

PEP Cited in The Economist!

Posted: June 23, 2015 in About PEP

“America’s bloated prison system has stopped growing. Now it must shrink,” is what this publication proclaims. Read the full story here.

the economist


DAVID PEACE, a 35-year-old from Dallas, has never used the internet. Neither has he ever used a mobile phone, possessed a driving licence or received a pay-cheque. Mr Peace, who is black, stockily built, with a broad smile, was convicted of an aggravated assault in 1997 after using a knife in a fight with a neighbour. The years most men of his age would have spent working, or starting a family, he has spent in various prisons in Texas. Next year he will be released from the minimum-security prison in Cleveland, a town near Houston, where he is currently held. The prospect of the outside world is still daunting. “I feel left behind,” he says. “I’ve been living in a place where all of my choices are made for me, and now I have to learn to make the right choices.”
No country in the world imprisons as many people as America does, or for so long. Across the array of state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centres, some 2.3m people are locked up at any one time. America, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for around 25% of the world’s prisoners. The system is particularly punishing towards black people and Hispanics, who are imprisoned at six times and twice the rates of whites respectively. A third of young black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The system is riddled with drugs, abuse and violence. Its cost to the American taxpayer is about $34,000 per inmate per year; the total bill is around $80 billion.

Things were not always this way. In 1970 America’s state and federal prisons together held just under 200,000 inmates. In 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of people in federal prisons, which hold only people convicted of federal crimes such as drug-smuggling or fraud, was itself more than 200,000 (see chart). There were almost 1.4m more inmates in state prisons; and there were over 700,000 people locked up in jails, some of them serving short sentences, the majority of them awaiting trial. Most of the inmates were men, but at 113 per 100,000 the incarceration rate of black women is higher than the overall incarceration rate in France or Germany. Prison conditions are often poor; many of those locked up have no proper access to training, education or rehabilitation.

Unstoppable though the system’s growth has seemed at times, in the past five years it has reached a plateau. In 2009, for the first time since the 1970s, the total prison population declined slightly. One reason is that, faced with budget pressures, many states—particularly big ones such as California, New York and Texas—have been trying to cut their prison populations. Reforms to sentencing policy introduced by Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney-general from 2009 to 2015, may explain the very small recent fall in federal prison numbers.
Another reason for the plateau in prison numbers is that crime is on the retreat—and with it people’s fears of crime. According to polling by Gallup, the proportion of Americans who worry “a great deal” about crime and violence has fallen dramatically since 2001 (though this year it ticked up from its previous low). That makes reform easier. American electorates have been widely assumed always to favour measures that look tough and punitive; but in California voters passed a ballot initiative last November that was designed to keep some non-violent criminals out of prison.

The trend could continue. Indeed, it could and should accelerate; this problem needs fixing. But even with a political appetite for reform and a public mood conducive to it, a comprehensive cutting back will be hard. The expanded prison system has built itself into the fabric of society. Judges, district attorneys, state- and county-level politicians, police forces, prison-guard unions, federal agencies and private firms that build and run prisons: all have contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, and many benefit from it. In rural parts of America prisons are now the biggest employers in many towns.

Forcing people in

The extraordinary growth in the prison population started with the “war on drugs” begun by Richard Nixon. The first state laws to bring in mandatory sentencing for drug crimes were introduced in New York in 1973, under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. During Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s both the federal government and many states introduced much tougher penalties for dealing crack cocaine than for dealing powder cocaine, a move that enforced strong racial biases on sentencing. Between 1980 and 1990, the proportion of offenders in prison whose primary offence was to do with drugs climbed from under 8% to almost a quarter.

The crack-cocaine epidemic produced the conditions for more punitive policies across the board. “Three strikes” provisions, which required prison for third offences however minor, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which limited the possibility of parole to at most the last 15% of a sentence, proliferated. In many cases their passage was sponsored by prison-guard unions. Time served grew dramatically: according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the average prisoner released in 2009 spent three years inside, up from two in 1990.
In the early 1990s crime began to fall; by 2000 it was falling steeply. At the time some put this down to the growth in the prison population, but today few experts see that as having been much of a factor. In the 1970s and 1980s more incarceration probably did take some violent and dangerous people off the streets. But a comprehensive study by the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University Law School, published in February, found that at most 12% of the fall in property crime in the 1990s could be attributed to more people in prison—and that there might have been no effect at all. Some of the punitive policies adopted in the 1990s seem to have been of particularly little value: Robert Nash Parker, a criminologist at the University of California, Riverside, has found that crime fell just as fast in states that had not adopted three-strikes laws as in ones that had.

A bigger prison system was also a worse one; as prisons filled up, states cut back on their quality. In 2012 a report on Arizona prisons by Amnesty International found thousands of prisoners confined to windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, without access to education or indeed any sensory stimulation at all. Most Texan prisons are not air-conditioned, which means that in summer the heat index, which takes temperature and humidity into account, can rise as high as 140°F (60°C). In one shocking case at a women’s prison in Alabama, guards were found to be routinely raping the inmates—and punishing those who complained with solitary confinement or threats of violence.
The drug problems that often get people to prison are rarely treated there: in 2010 the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse, a think-tank, found that 65% of prisoners and jail inmates had substance-abuse problems, for which just 11% got any help. In many states prisoners have extremely limited access to vocational training or higher education. The crime bill signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, a measure which enacted subsidies that encouraged the building of state prisons, also banned prisoners from receiving Pell grants to help get college degrees—a decision which dramatically undercut education within prisons. As Mr Clinton admitted in an interviewon CNN in May, “We wound up…putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”
Mr Peace, about to be released from his prison near Houston, is one of those who enjoys such a chance, thanks to philanthropy. He is enrolled in a privately organised “Prison Entrepreneurship Programme” through which he receives enthusiastic mentoring from well-off volunteers (dancing features surprisingly heavily: tattooed murderers bop around the floor with blazer-wearing oil executives from Houston). When he leaves prison, he will get help finding housing and work. When most prisoners in Texas are released at the end of their term, though, they get just a bus ticket home and $100; those let out on parole get $50. It is a recipe for recidivism. According to a Department of Justice survey of those released from state prisons in 30 states, 77% of those released in 2005 were arrested within five years; more than half of the arrests were within a year of release.

Building a new life is made even more difficult by policies which continue to punish criminals long after they have served their time. In many states, former felons are banned from claiming food stamps and getting public housing. In some trades, having a conviction can keep you out of work entirely. In Texas prisoners may be taught how to cut hair in prison, but barbers’ licences are withheld from some convicted felons.

Making a plateau a peak

The case for change is manifest; the opportunity real. Outrage at the deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police has prompted a new look at the way the rest of the justice system treats them. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president, gave a speech in April arguing that “there is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be…sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.” Some sort of reform is popular with a number of Republicans, too. In the Senate several Republicans are joint sponsors of bipartisan bills intended to reform the federal prison system.
The war on drugs is now being wound down. In four states and the District of Columbia cannabis has been legalised; in many more, its possession has been decriminalised. New York reformed the Rockefeller drug laws in 2004 and again in 2009. In 2010 Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the historic 100:1 disparity between the amount of powder cocaine and the amount of crack that would trigger federal penalties. Drugs courts have been widely introduced to direct non-violent drug-users into treatment, not prison.
John Whitmire, a Democrat in the Texas state Senatewho is a prominent advocate of prison reform, says his state is at last learning “to distinguish between who you’re afraid of and who you’re mad at.” The state’s Right on Crime movement—a Republican group—argues that reducing prison populations is both fiscally conservative and in accord with the Christian principle of forgiveness. Rick Perry, until January Texas’s governor and a Republican presidential candidate for 2016, likes to boast about closing three prisons during his time in office.
But substantially reducing the prison population is difficult. Reducing the flow into prison of non-violent, non-sex-offender prisoners who have committed relatively minor crimes—which is much of what has been done so far—is politically palatable, but has only a limited impact. John Pfaff of Fordham Law School in New York points out that such offenders have been a diminishing proportion of the prison population for some time. Violent offenders make up around half of all prisoners in state and federal prisons, sex offenders 12%. There are 165,000 murderers in America’s state prisons and 160,000 rapists: if everyone else were released, America’s incarceration rate would still be higher than Germany’s. Over time this pattern seems certain to strengthen: even for dealers, drug sentences tend to be relatively short, but violent criminals are sent away for decades. There is little appetite for releasing them early, even if they have aged and mellowed in prison.

Another problem is that the people who run the system have substantial incentives to protect it. “If it wasn’t for district attorneys, we would have passed so many more bills already,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, the head of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a prison-reform pressure group. The backlash to be faced if a criminal who could have been, or stayed, locked up does something heinous gives elected prosecutors—and judges—a strong incentive to err on the side of stiff penalties. Mr Pfaff sees a ratchet effect at work over time, with prosecutors seeking ever tougher charges. Private prisons, which account for just 8% of all prison beds but are growing fast, also produce a constituency with an interest in seeing those beds filled. Many prison-management firms insist on minimum-occupancy terms in contracts.

For these reasons and others, attempts made by states to slow or arrest the growth of their prison populations have met with only partial success. Texas’s prison population, for example, has not fallen much since 2007. In half the states the prison population continued to increase between 2009 and 2013, even as the national numbers fell a bit.
But two big states, California and New York, have done well enough to suggest that the others could do better. In California the imprisoned population has been cut by 51,000, over 30%, since 2006. New York’s prison population has been falling since 1999, and is now a quarter smaller than it was. In both states, the reforms that have worked have not been changes to laws but rather adjustments to the way in which the entire system, from arrest to release, is organised.

In California, the reduction was largely the result of “realignment”, a policy adopted after the US Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded and either new prisons would have to be built or prisoners released. The response was to pass the cost of dealing with comparatively harmless criminals from the state to its counties—the entities which actually charge people and send them to prison. In addition, county probation departments took on responsibility for 60,000 people released from prison into supervision programmes.

Focusing on the worst

The policy seems to have realigned incentives productively; though roughly a third of the reduction in California’s prison population went back behind bars, two-thirds did not. The state is now going further: proposition 47, an initiative passed last year with overwhelming support, is likely further to reduce the number of people going to prison by replacing several felonies with misdemeanours.
New York’s adjustment to the system has been brought about largely by prosecutors in New York City, who have become more careful about how they use the toughest charges. Cy Vance, Manhattan’s district attorney, is a fan of what he calls intelligence-driven prosecution. Under his tutelage, a Crime Strategies Unit collects information on the most persistent criminals, which can inform prosecutors even if it does not form part of a case. “If I know someone who is involved in shootings or violence, even if he is arrested for shoplifting, I want to charge it as aggressively as possible,” says Mr Vance.

The rationale behind this strategy is that most people who turn up in front of a judge are fairly harmless; even in the most violent neighbourhoods, a tiny number of criminals, often ones good at intimidating witnesses, account for most violent crime. If the book is thrown at the second lot and more leniency show to the first, prison populations and crime rates could both fall. The intelligence lies in throwing the books correctly.

And some money that could have been spent on prosecutions is instead being spent on crime prevention. At a gym in a relatively poor neighbourhood of Harlem teenagers are taught basketball skills by professional coaches—all under the watchful eyes of police officers and staff from Mr Vance’s office. Similar sessions take place every weekend at ten different sites across Manhattan. In a city where zero-tolerance policing makes many young black teenagers suspicious of any uniform, the teenagers seem happy with the prosecutors and cops present. The hope is that by building trust, prosecutors will find out about arguments between teenage gangs before they erupt into violence.
If prison is to be less of a part of American life, the philosophy behind such schemes needs to spread. Reform in police forces like those of Los Angeles and New York City, which in the 1990s started trying to prevent crime as well as react to it, is one of the things that has made America less violent. But the rest of the criminal-justice system is only slowly catching up to the idea of being proactive. A system that has been designed to react to crime, and to punish it, needs to prevent it instead. That will take a broad change in culture, not just tweaks to laws.

In his cell block, Mr Peace complains that for most of the time he has spent in prison, he has never been treated as someone with a problem, but rather as a problem himself. He has earned qualifications as a plumber and a welder—both paid for by his mother. He is hopeful that when he leaves, he will never come back. If America is to be the land of the free, it will have to learn to forgive a lot more men like him.

Read the full story here, published by the Society for Human Resource Management.


Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of employers perform individualized assessments for candidates who have conviction records—up from 64 percent in 2014—giving those applicants a chance to explain the circumstances of their convictions, according to a new survey.

This is the highest percentage since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance on employers’ use of criminal records in 2012.

That’s one of the key findings from background screening provider EmployeeScreenIQ’s survey of 500 U.S.-based employers regarding their use of employment background checks.

“Employers who do not perform individualized assessments may not be violating the letter of the law, but they are at risk for claims of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act according to the EEOC’s guidance on this matter,” said Nick Fishman, executive vice president at EmployeeScreenIQ. “This is a fairly strong indication that the EEOC’s guidance continues to have a growing impact on employers’ hiring practices.”

Only 21 percent of respondents said they disqualify candidates due to criminal records more than 20 percent of the time. The remaining 79 percent disqualify candidates because of criminal records far less frequently or not at all, according to survey results. In fact, the percentage of respondents who said they disqualify applicants more than 20 percent of the time fell from 32 percent in 2014, the largest variation in any category year over year.

“Employers continue to consider other factors such as the severity of the crimes, whether the crimes are related to the jobs being sought, the amount of time since the conviction and whether the candidate is a repeat offender,” Fishman said. “Indeed, the EEOC recommends that employers use all of these criteria when making hiring decisions,” he added.

The survey did find that background checks are being used to vet applicants: 90 percent of respondents said background checks have uncovered information that convinced them not to hire candidates—“firmly fulfilling their purpose of helping employers reduce risk to their organizations and protect their employees, clients and customers,” Fishman said.

The great majority of surveyed employers expressed concern over felony convictions related to crimes of violence (93 percent) and theft and dishonesty (90 percent), followed by drug offenses (70 percent) and various misdemeanors and driving infractions. “Employers’ general concern over incidents of workplace violence, employee theft and negligent-hiring lawsuits all continue to rise,” Fishman said. “And their concern continues to ebb in relation to minor drug offenses, driving infractions and charges that don’t result in convictions.”

The number of employers asking candidates to divulge their criminal history on job applications dropped in this year’s survey to 53 percent vs. 66 percent in 2014. However, three-quarters of respondents still ask candidates to divulge their criminal history at some point during the hiring process. For the remainder that don’t, “this can be a risky proposition as employers are held to the legal standard ‘If they could have known, they should have known,’ which can result in potential negligent-hiring issues,” Fishman said.

Other findings include:

Protecting clients and customers is the No. 1 reason employers conduct background checks (46 percent), followed by workplace safety (16 percent) and identifying the best candidates (15 percent).
Employers find “ban-the-box” laws preventing employers from asking about prior criminal history on job applications unfair (48 percent), confusing (26 percent) and an unnecessary delay in their hiring processes (25 percent).
Almost half of employers (44 percent) said they would flatly reject candidates who did not divulge past convictions on their job applications if those convictions were then revealed during a background check, while almost as many (39 percent) said they would give candidates an opportunity to explain the convictions.
Compliance Tops Screening Challenges

When asked to rank the screening challenges their companies will face this year in order of importance, compliance surpassed every other response by a wide margin as the single most important challenge: 51 percent cited compliance, followed by 14 percent who said ensuring use of the most comprehensive criminal record search and 11 percent who responded improving the candidate experience.