Commentary

Former Inmates Learning to Avoid Going Back to Their Cells

At last, more emphasis — particularly from Attorney General Eric Holder — is being placed on how to reduce the large numbers of inmates in our overflowing prisons. Once released, these people are often re-arrested, and then locked up as criminals again.

In a lead editorial last month, The New York Times revealed what many of us didn’t know, that “in 2013, about 30,000 federal prison inmates were released to more than 200 halfway houses around the country. These facilities — where an inmate can serve up to the last year of his or her sentence — are meant to ease the transition back into society by way of employment and housing assistance, drug treatment and other programs that make it less likely an inmate will end up reoffending and returning to prison” (“Halfway Back to Society,” The New York Times, March 30).

“Preventing recidivism,” the Times editorial argues, “should, of course, be a central goal of any correctional system.”

The problem, though, is that “too many halfway houses are understaffed, poorly supervised and generally ill prepared to do that job, and as a result the men and women who pass through them often leave them no better off.”

But the attorney general — long dismissed by many critics, including me, as a mere minion of his dictatorial boss — is actively involved in bringing, of all things, human rights to our prison system.

The Times editorial goes on: “On March 24, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. took a step in the right direction by announcing new requirements for federally financed halfway houses — the most recent example of his aggressive push for reform across the criminal justice system.”

Furthermore: “Starting in early 2015, halfway houses must provide more rigorous and standardized cognitive-behavioral treatment for inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues, both of which are rampant in prison populations.”

How many congressional and presidential candidates will support this in 2016?

In February, I wrote that “the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law reported on Holder’s ‘great step forward on restoring voting rights’ … the attorney general ‘urged states to restore voting rights to people of past criminal convictions’ ” once they had “ ‘completed probation, parole and paid all fines’ ” (my column, “Obama’s Attorney General Americanized (in Part),” cato.org, Feb. 19).

And last week, I reported on Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which he elaborated on during his March testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, insisting “that people convicted of certain low-level, nonviolent federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct — rather than stringent mandatory minimums, which will now be applied only to the most serious criminals” (“Attorney General Holder Urges Changes in Federal Sentencing Guidelines to Reserve Harshest Penalties for Most Serious Drug Traffickers,” justice.gov, March 13).

Happily, he acknowledged that “this approach enjoys significant bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where a number of leaders, including Sens. Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin and Mike Lee — along with Reps. Bobby Scott and Raul Labrador — have introduced legislation that would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for those convicted of certain crimes.

“By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities” and cutting down on recidivism.

And now that Holder himself sees the necessary humaneness in preventing formerly incarcerated Americans from becoming permanent outcasts, he is looking ahead: “As my colleagues and I work with Congress to refine and pass this legislation, we are simultaneously moving forward with a range of other reforms.”

The no-longer-supine Holder speaks of such programs as “drug treatment initiatives and veterans courts that can serve as alternatives to incarceration in some cases.

“We are working to reduce unnecessary collateral consequences for formerly incarcerated individuals seeking to rejoin their communities. And we are building on innovative, data-driven reinvestment strategies that have in many cases been pioneered at the state level.”

Gee, the Justice Department is following Louis Brandeis’ advice to pay attention to the individual states for creative innovations to actually bring justice to our prison system.

Holder continued: “In recent years, no fewer than 17 states — supported by the department’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and led by officials from both parties — have directed significant funding away from prison construction (Wow!) and toward evidence-based programs and services, like supervision and drug treatment, that are proven to reduce recidivism while improving public safety.”

And to draw the support of taxpayers increasingly worried about how well their health insurance and pensions will cover them during retirement, Holder cheerily reported that: “Rather than increasing costs, a new report — funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance — projects that these 17 states will actually save $4.6 billion over a 10-year period.”

That’s for starters. I hope that the media in all its forms will learn — as I have from Eric Holder — what ceaselessly inventive jazz master Charlie Parker once told me: “Kid, be careful about first impressions and previous impressions. Get to know that person — and yourself — again, and deeper. You might have missed something important!”

Well, I never thought I’d write two columns urging you to look again at the previously mechanical head of the Justice Department — in the shadow of the omnipotent president. But this renewed Eric Holder has shown that he can be his own man — up to this point. There should be more changes from him to come.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.