President Obama’s Prison Reform Advisor

By · Friday, March 20th, 2009

If I were a policy advisor to President Barack Obama on the niche subject of prison reform, I would urge him to bring the exact leadership skills that have exemplified his young presidency. That means I would want President Obama to embrace the findings of academia, Congress, and think tanks. Those findings strongly suggest that our enlightened society needs to make fundamental changes to America’s prison system. The lobbyists who have influenced correctional policy over the past few decades have led this system into a ditch. We need change.

Congress has shown that prisons cost taxpayers nearly $60 billion each year to operate. The Pew Report shows that 1 in every 31 people in America is under the correctional system’s supervision. Academics have shown that prisoners who worked to educate themselves were the least likely to recidivate. Yet more expenditures have gone to erecting prison boundaries than have gone to preparing offenders for law abiding lives upon release.

One improvement President Obama could make would be to order the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to abide by the recommendations of Congress as published in The Second Chance Act. That Act suggested that administrators implement programs to help prisoners nurture family ties. Family ties represent the surest way to prepare offenders for success upon release. The Director should immediately lift restrictions that block prisoners from being able to nurture ties with family through the telephone, visits, and e-mail.

President Obama should also use the power of his office to influence legislation that would encourage prisoners to work toward earning freedom through merit. Congress ought to provide an objective path for offenders to follow that would allow them to reconcile with society. Those who built records that demonstrated they could function in society as law-abiding citizens, and redeemed themselves through merit, should find graduated increases in freedom.

Finally, I would suggest that President Obama order the Pardon Attorney to evaluate all prisoner petitions who seek executive clemency. Those prisoners who have earned freedom ought not be barred from access to acts of compassion, as Justice Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court urged.

Our country has been wrong in measuring justice through the turning of calendar pages. A better measurement for our enlightened society would be to measure justice by an individual’s efforts toward reconciling with society. Alex Gomez was a criminal justice student who inspired these thoughts through questions he asked me.

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