Op-ed: Prison reform: The time is now

  • By Cal Thomas
  • Sunday, February 11, 2018 9:35am
  • Opinion

It didn’t seem to fit in President Trump’s State of the Union address, perhaps something tossed in at the last minute, like a garnish. But there it was: “As America regains its strength, opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons, to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.”

Like Richard Nixon opening the door to China, only a Republican could propose prison reform and not be labeled “soft on crime.”

It is not news that American prisons are overcrowded, cost too much to maintain and warehouse men and women, many of whom should not be there. There ought to be an alternative for nonviolent, non-lethal offenders. Those being released from prison should be offered a second chance without the mark of Cain being stamped on them.

One step in that direction may be a recent story in The Washington Post. Ron Nelsen owns a garage door company in Las Vegas, but has had trouble finding people to work for him because of the falling unemployment rate. His assistant handed him a resume, and when Nelsen looked at it he discovered the applicant’s recent jobs were all in a state prison.

Nelsen decided to interview the man, Ian Black. “He was articulate and respectful, and he told me he’d been an idiot when he was younger.”

Still apprehensive, Nelsen took a chance on the convicted burglar and hired him. Black is part of a work release program. His parole hearing is set for this month. Nelsen calls Black “my best worker.”

Nelsen is not alone. As the Post reports, more businesses are starting to give ex-convicts a second chance. This is not some liberal “feel-good” idea. Even the conservative Koch Industries is hiring former inmates. Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, is quoted as saying, “What someone did on their worst day doesn’t define them forever.”

Ask yourself which approach is likely to cut the recidivism rate, which remains especially high for those who can’t find meaningful work: A spirit of forgiveness, mercy and a second chance or branding someone as irredeemable? The question should answer itself.

If he follows through on his promise, President Trump has an opportunity to go where few have gone before. As with his promise to free poor minority children from their failed public schools, reforming America’s prison system and, indeed, America’s approach to incarceration, which has done little to redeem or reform anyone, would be a lasting legacy.

According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), which compiles data on our criminal justice system, “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 76 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers and prisons in the U.S. territories.”

One in five prisoners in the federal prison system is there for nonviolent drug offenses. At the state and local levels it is different and although most of the incarcerated are there for infractions unrelated to drugs, most states continue to arrest people for drug possession. As the PPI notes, “Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.”

The trend of hiring former inmates who have served time for nonviolent offenses should be encouraged. Most prisoners will return to society. Will society welcome them with a job and a second chance, thus reducing the recidivism rate, or ostracize them and increase the chances they will commit new crimes against new victims in order to survive?

Ron Nelsen is setting a good example. Others should follow, because who among us has not needed a second chance at something?

Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com.

More in Opinion

Larry Persily (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: State’s ‘what if’ lawsuit doesn’t much add up

The state’s latest legal endeavor came July 2 in a dubious lawsuit — with a few errors and omissions for poor measure

The entrance to the Homer Electric Association office is seen here in Kenai, Alaska, on May 7, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: Speak up on net metering program

The program allows members to install and use certain types of renewable generation to offset monthly electric usage and sell excess power to HEA

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs bills for the state’s 2025 fiscal year budget during a private ceremony in Anchorage on Thursday, June 25, 2024. (Official photo from The Office of the Governor)
Alaska’s ‘say yes to everything’ governor is saying ‘no’ to a lot of things

For the governor’s purposes, “everything” can pretty much be defined as all industrial development

Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board members, staff and advisors meet Oct. 30, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The concerns of reasonable Alaskans isn’t ‘noise’

During a legislative hearing on Monday, CEO Deven Mitchell referred to controversy it’s created as “noise.”

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: Crime pays a lot better than newspapers

I used to think that publishing a quality paper, full of accurate, informative and entertaining news would produce enough revenue to pay the bills

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo
Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom addresses the crowd during an inaugural celebration for her and Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 20, 2023.
Opinion: The many truths Dahlstrom will deny

Real conservatives wouldn’t be trashing the rule of law

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict

Ballot booths are set up inside Kenai City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Perspective from an election worker

Here is what I know about our Kenai Peninsula Borough election system

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting transgender rights. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The imaginary transgender sports crisis

House Bill 183 is a right-wing solution to a problem that doesn’t exist now and never will.