On Aug. 17 the Daily Record printed a hard-hitting essay by Cokie and Steve Roberts on the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system.
The authors begin by pointing out that this is NOT an issue that divides Americans neatly along party lines: People from all points on the political spectrum have come to see that we must reform the system to reduce prison populations and enable former inmates to rejoin the larger community. The practical, economic, social, and moral imperatives to do so can no longer be ignored.
As the authors observe, our current criminal justice system costs too much, accomplishes too little, and actually makes us less safe and less free. With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of its prisoners. We now have some 219,000 inmates in federal custody, and each one costs taxpayers about $30,000 a year. Prisons are desperately overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded, with too much of their budgets devoted to staggering infrastructure and security costs, and too little dedicated to treatment, counseling, and training programs. Instead of helping prepare prisoners for re-entry into society, some of these institutions are unintentionally preparing them for a life of continued crime and inevitable recidivism.
Fortunately, there are initiatives on multiple fronts to reduce prison populations, do away with mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, de-escalate the “drug war,” and revise our laws to create a criminal justice system that is both more efficient and more humane.
Around the nation, local governments, social service agencies, and interfaith groups are stepping up to address the challenges of sentencing reform, rehabilitation and re-entry. Some of these organizations work with prison administrations to offer counseling, education, and job training to inmates. Others focus on assisting these citizens when they are eventually released after serving their terms. Former inmates face enormous barriers to reintegration, especially difficulties in gaining access to safe housing, living-wage employment, and reliable transportation.
Here in Wayne and Holmes Counties, we have several organizations working to improve our criminal justice system. Among them are:
- The Wayne Holmes Re-Entry Coalition provides a wide range of services to returning citizens. Their objectives are “to provide youth and adult offenders with the resources and essential tools to re-enter community life successfully […], reduce recidivism, and ultimately enhance public safety.”
- Anazao community partners is “a private, non-profit organization providing treatment, intervention and prevention services to residents and organizations throughout Wayne and Holmes Counties. […] Our intervention services offer a broad array of outreach programs for individuals who are involved with the criminal justice system, in unstable families or in need of assistance to find employment.”
- The Wooster-Orville NAACP Justice initiative is part of the national NAACP program advocating for “smaller, results-based criminal justice policies to keep our communities safe, including treatment for addiction and mental health problems, judicial discretion in sentencing, and an end to racial disparities at all levels of the system.”
- Wooster Behind Bars and Beyond is “a community based, peer support group for re-entering citizens in Wayne County.” The group hosts a monthly gathering at which ex-offenders and other community members can share a relaxed meal, express their concerns, and provide mutual support.
- The Counseling Center of Wayne and Holmes Counties, whose mission is to enhance and promote the mental health of ALL citizens in our communities, also offers a range of services specifically for ex-offenders needing support as they re-enter, or relocate to, Wayne or Holmes County.
All of these organizations, and other local efforts to reform our approach to criminal justice, richly deserve the support of our communities.