It’s an astounding number: Some 600,000 state and federal prisoners return to their communities every year, having paid their debt to society – to use a well-worn expression – but too often there are barriers that make them feel the debt never will be paid, even if they fully intend to abide by the law and try to make new lives for themselves.
Now U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in a gutsy decision, is engaging states in helping prisoners with the transition to society. One important suggestion: to let prisoners exchange their prisoner identification cards for state-issued IDs. It sounds like a small thing. It’s not.
Without a valid, readily accepted ID, former prisoners aren’t really free. Absent that identification, they can’t rent apartments, get jobs, open bank accounts, get credit, be admitted to college. So states would be acting in their own self-interest to provide IDs. They would be easing the path to good citizenship for those leaving prison.
Lynch also is guiding the Justice Department toward rethinking harsh, long sentences for nonviolent crimes and drug crimes. Many of those sentences came about during the 1980s and thereafter, driven by politicians who wanted to be seen as “tough on crime.” There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, and drugs are a major factor in many crimes – but putting people away who were not major dealers or “kingpins” or involved in violent crimes connected to drug dealing has filled prisons with individuals who are not much of a threat to others.
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And those long sentences represent a too-simple solution to dealing with those in the criminal justice punishment system who might stand a good chance at rehabilitation.
Re-entry is a challenge. But a country that believes in redemption owes it to people leaving prison who genuinely want to turn their lives around and start anew — many of them with families to motivate them — the best chance to make something of their lives.