As part of his new budget, President Donald Trump is threatening to cut the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Started in 2007, the program enables those pursuing careers as public defenders, social workers, teachers and doctors to become eligible for student loan debt relief. The stipulations are clear: You must work for the government or a nonprofit and pay off loans on time for 120 months. After 10 years of paying, your remaining debt will be forgiven. Education Department officials have said that these budget cuts would not affect those currently in the program, but those who hoped to take advantage of the program are left in the lurch, wondering whether they will need to change their plans.
This past week Liz Wolfe, Managing Editor of Young Voices, wrote in the Washington Examiner that Fox News has a looming demographic problem, and they aren’t making it any better by attacking Kendrick Lamar and criminal justice reform. Stephen and Liz discuss Fox’s messaging problem, Millennial news habits and also what the exit of Bill O’ Reilly means for the future of Fox News.
Once he was safely a lame duck, President Barack Obama let states set their own marijuana policies, pardoned or commuted thousands of prisoners’ sentences and talked more freely—and less hypocritically—about the need to end the war on drugs. In fact, his Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) concluded that Richard Nixon’s famous War on Drugs was now a relict by sending the wrong message in prioritizing punishment over treatment. (In reality, the war did continue, even if the phrase had been covered neatly with a tarp for a few years under the guise of “laboratories of democracy.“)
Now we’re in Donald Trump’s America, with Trump’s ODCP and Trump’s Department of Justice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions heads the latter and he’s expressed befuddlement that the American people aren’t cheering his musings on the prospect of kicking the drug war up a notch to prevent some imagined dystopian future of convenience-store marijuana sales. Unfortunately, POTUS’s supposed pick for drug czar, U.S. Representative Tom Marino, is likely to be just as bad as Sessions. A Republican from Pennsylvania, Marino’s voting record on the drug war makes him well-suited for this position in a Trump administration.
As the Washington Post reports, Marino seems to gung-ho on the “Let’s vaguely pretend this is about public health” front, a position that is all the rage on the right. For Marino, protecting public health may involve “hospital-slash-prisons.”
During a 2016 congressional hearing about heroin, Marino wrung his hands on drug abuse and mostly, how it affects children. His full quote, in context: “One treatment option I have advocated for years would be placing nondealer, nonviolent drug abusers in a secured hospital-type setting under the constant care of health professionals. Once the person agrees to plead guilty to possession, he or she will be placed in an intensive treatment program until experts determine that they should be released under intense supervision. If this is accomplished, then the charges are dropped against that person. The charges are only filed to have an incentive for that person to enter the hospital-slash-prison, if you want to call it.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley recently announced a new initiative aimed at addressing the state’s overcrowding problem,with 23,000 prisoners in facilities designed for about 13,000. The “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative” would consolidate the state’s fourteen prisons into four mega–prisons, costing taxpayers about $800 million. Amazingly, Bentley argues this is the most cost effective way to handle Alabama’s disastrous criminal justice system.
Instead of throwing money at the behemoth of bureaucracy that the prison complex has become, Alabama should consider an alternative model for reform pioneered by Texas.
In 2007, Texas legislators coalesced around a rare bipartisan effort to slim the country’s most bloated incarceration population. The war on drugs and tough on crime politics skyrocketed the state’s incarcerated population from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010. The legislature in Austin was faced with two options—a $523 million prison construction plan or an approach focused on shrinking the amount of people they send to prison (i.e. the root of the problem). Obviously, the tough on crime stance so popular in deeply red states hadn’t stemmed the crime wave in any meaningful sense, so Texas House leaders opted for an alternative strategy.
Instead of placing first-time, nonviolent drug offenders in prison — making them more likely to adapt to the hardened prison culture and reoffend once out on release — Texas expanded drug courts that allowed users to forego prison if they agreed to comprehensive supervision, drug testing, and treatment. The new approach also eschewed the common practice of severe sentencing punishments for technical violations of probation or parole. Instead, Texas’s reforms used graduated sanctions (i.e. increasingly strict punishments for parole or probation violations as opposed to instant re-incarceration) and rehabilitation programs for drug users and the mentally ill.
Texas legislators wanted to send fewer people to prison. After all, housing prisoners is a massive taxpayer burden, with annual cost of $26,000 for just one prisoner, and Americans foot an annual bill of roughly $85 billion for corrections.
It’s no secret Illinois is in terrible financial shape. To be sure, the state’s corrections system is a key contributor. Illinois prisons cost taxpayers $1.4 billion in 2015, up $110 million since 2010.
One silver lining may be that the financial strain has prompted progress on the criminal justice reform front. Citing the huge dollars spent on corrections annually, Gov. Bruce Rauner formed a bipartisan commission to look at ways to reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025. Commission members released a solid list of recommendations last month and have a report focusing on sentencing reform due out this summer.
But to bring prison spending down, lawmakers must pay just as much attention to what happens after prison as to the operations themselves — specifically, how barriers to work and employment so frequently land former offenders right back in the system.
Today, about 48 percent of the inmates released from an Illinois prison return within three years. Imagine the savings if this cycle were stopped.
It’s clear that the stigma of a criminal record is difficult to overcome when attempting to find work. National survey data suggest that as many as 60 percent to 75 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed a year after release from prison. Even with ban-the-box legislation active in Illinois, many employers still hesitate to give former offenders a chance. And, lacking legitimate work, many ex-offenders find themselves back on the wrong side of the law.
Even those unmoved to sympathy by the employment struggles of former offenders should recognize the crippling cost of maintaining the status quo. The Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimates that each act of recidivism costs Illinois $118,746 — about $41,000 to taxpayers, around $57,000 in victimization costs, and about $20,000 in lost economic activity. The more former offenders find work, the more we shave criminal justice spending — and gain in a broadened tax base and contributing citizens.