By: AIF Staff
Chuck Grassley is an 87-year-old from Iowa who has spent nearly forty years serving in the Senate. Kim Kardashian West is a socialite and businesswoman from California who has spent nearly fifteen years starring on reality shows. At first glance, these two individuals could not be more different. The only thing this pair has in common, in addition to being entertaining on Twitter, is their commitment to reforming our nation’s criminal justice system.
Both have been instrumental in addressing issues associated with our criminal justice system and both were forceful advocates for the First Step Act of 2018. As Speaker of the House, American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan helped lead this successful bipartisan effort to modernize elements of our justice system, uniting both the left and the right around policies that would allow individuals to serve their sentences, atone for their crimes, and then get back on the ladder of life.
As the American Idea Foundation has noted in past articles highlighting the main policy elements in the First Step Act: “It is rare to see meaningful legislation pass with 358 votes in the House and 87 votes in the Senate, and the legislation, which was backed by Governors, law enforcement groups, former federal prosecutors, and a constellation of advocacy organizations, showed that Congress is still capable of addressing complex issues that have a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals.”
The First Step Act of 2018 was not merely an academic exercise for policymakers. Far from it. The problem of recidivism is very real for far too many American families. The American Enterprise Institute’s report, Rethinking Reentry, detailed the scope of the problem:
“The vast majority of the nearly 600,000 people released from federal and state prisons every year cannot successfully transition back into our neighborhoods and communities, often swiftly returning to incarceration for new crimes. A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report reinforces this dismal reality. The study examined nearly 68,000 people released from state prisons in 2005 and found that 83 percent—roughly equivalent to five out of six—were arrested again within nine years of their release.”
It is simply unacceptable that individuals who commit a mistake and serve their punishments are then seemingly confined to a life of criminal behavior and incarceration, too often passing through the revolving door of America’s justice system.
Without question, efforts to reduce recidivism must begin while individuals are incarcerated, which is why it is encouraging that the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons are increasingly utilizing evidence-based strategies, like more robust initial risk assessments and increased vocational programming, to lower rates of reoffending. The Independent Review Committee of outside experts, which was established as part of the First Step Act, recently detailed some of the early evidence-based strategies, providing insight into how the federal government’s data can inform efforts while individuals are still confined.
But reducing recidivism does not stop at the doors of America’s jails and prisons. Rather, these pre-release efforts seed the ground, creating the conditions for individuals to truly reform and reintegrate into society. They must then be supplemented by post-release efforts, which is why in July, the American Idea Foundation highlighted the successful pilot projects run by United Health Care and READI Chicago to help individuals reacclimate to society. The work being done by these groups is so important, because it helps rebuild families and communities, one person at a time.
Another local initiative that is achieving success and using an innovative approach in Wisconsin is the Joseph Project. As the Capitol Times reported:
“The program, named for the Robert L. Woodson Sr. book “The Triumphs of Joseph,” is a faith-based initiative that seeks to train men and women — often with criminal backgrounds — and find them jobs with Wisconsin businesses.”
The Joseph Project’s model is one that the American Idea Foundation believes holds promise and that could be replicated in other parts of the country. The organization was created by Senator Ron Johnson, local community leader Orlando Owens, and Greater Praise Church of God in Christ pastor Jerome Smith who were working on economic development initiatives in majority-minority communities.
The National Review described the Joseph Project’s genesis as a simple alignment of seeing a problem and developing a solution:
“According to Smith, the idea for the project arose after he and several other pastors visited the Sheboygan Economic Development Corporation about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, a visit facilitated by Orlando Owens…. It became clear during this trip that a number of corporations had unfilled manufacturing jobs, while Smith knew of countless people in the Milwaukee area who were looking for work.
And as the Wall Street Journal noted:
“There are tens of thousands of unfilled manufacturing and other entry-level positions in Wisconsin. Seven of 10 state CEOs had trouble finding enough qualified workers, the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce trade group found in a July survey, and demand is rising. To try to resolve this mismatch between potential workers and the businesses that want to hire them, Mr. Owens and Pastor Smith last year started a partnership called the Joseph Project.”
As part of its programming, the Joseph Project puts individuals through a vetting process; teaches them interview skills, financial literacy lessons, and conflict management techniques; and then links them with Wisconsin employers. They assist individuals throughout the job-seeking and employment process. The employers, who trust the Joseph Project’s efforts, often provide flexibility in hiring individuals, particularly those with criminal records, so they are not excluded from opportunities.
The early results have been promising, as detailed in a 2016 Capitol Times article: “About 140 people have gone through the class, Smith said. Of those participants, about 120 have had interviews with employers, and about 85 have landed jobs. Those who have found employment have had about a 78 percent retention rate.”
As the Journal summarized: “Success builds on success, the faith-based program teaches a sense of spiritual solidarity. “The Joseph Project is really bigger than just you,” Mr. Owens says. “It’s really about the next person behind you, keeping the door open for the next person behind you.”
Like so many recidivism-reduction programs, the Joseph Project’s success is rooted in an approach that treats participants with compassion, dignity, and respect. And the program has continued to see results, recently expanding its footprint to Milwaukee, Madison, and Sheboygan.
The community buy-in, the individualized assistance, the long-term approach to helping individuals get back to living productive lives is not going unnoticed. In 2020, Trump Administration officials visited the organization to talk with its participants. During the conversation, Senior Advisor Ja’Ron Smith highlighted the integral role of these local groups, stating: “It’s much needed in partnership with the passage of the First Step Act or any type of reform that comes with giving people second chances,” he said. “Having local leadership like this is important.”
At the signing of the First Step Act, Speaker Ryan summed up the importance of these local efforts to ultimately expand opportunities for individuals looking to get back on their feet:
“For too long as the society, we have ignored those who have made mistakes and paid for those mistakes and we ended up turning what is the legitimate punishment for wrongs committed into a lifelong brand, eliminating the ability for individuals to turn their lives around, permanently separating parents from children and driving millions into despair.
“America at its best is an America that provides for second chances. If a small business owner fails, they pick themselves up and they try again, but for too long, we’ve decided that individuals who break the law don’t get a second chance. Of all the things that our country has demonstrated, it is the power of redemption and so we need to make sure that we realize the power of redemption in our criminal justice system, and with the First Step Act, we have changed that paradigm and formerly incarcerated individuals are now getting a second chance to lead better and more productive lives.”
Since its enactment, the First Step Act has allowed more individuals to better reintegrate into their communities, but it will require the collective buy-in from everyone to successfully reduce recidivism over the long-term. With bright lights like the Joseph Project leading the way in communities, the number of people who are truly given a second chance to pursue the American Dream will undoubtedly increase and that could make a hug difference.