Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) released his 73-page “discussion draft” outlining specific approaches to reshape how the federal government combats poverty. As Sarah reported, the proposal aims to reform the way government provides aid by consolidating 11 federal anti-poverty programs into one pilot program. States that choose to opt-in would receive streamlined funding for housing assistance, food stamps, child care, etc. to distribute according to need. This budget-neutral “Opportunity Grant” would theoretically give states more control while exchanging “more flexibility for more accountability”.
Though most discussion has circled around the Opportunity Grant, Ryan’s plan also includes ideas such revising prison sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders. During his speech at the American Enterprise Institute Thursday, Ryan threw his support behind Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s (R-Utah) Public Safety Enhancement Act, saying: (emphasis mine)
“Did you know half of our ex-cons are reincarcerated within three years of release? But we know that there are programs that work, that get people out of a life of crime. That’s why Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Bobby Scott have introduced the Public Safety Enhancement Act. We’d let low risk, non-violent offenders exchange time in prison for time in pre-release custody as long as they complete a program with a proven track record. Here’s the point: non-violent, low risk offenders – don’t lock them up and throw away the key. Get them in counseling, get them in training, help them rejoin and contribute to our society.”
Ryan's proposal observes the tremendous strain that housing inmates puts on the economy:
About 2.2 million people are currently behind bars—a more than 340 percent increase since 1980. As a result, we spend about $80 billion on corrections at all levels of government—an inflation-adjusted increase of over 350 percent in that same period. This growing cost burden on society is a cause for concern.
In order to expand opportunity in America, Ryan emphasizes that once non-violent offenders have "paid their debt" to society, they should be able to move on. He explains that all too often, the consequence of incarceration extends even after release from prison. The proposal highlights three possible reforms to remedy this problem:
— Grant judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders.
— Implement a risk- and needs-assessment system in federal prisons while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism. Allow non-violent and low-risk inmates to use enrollment to earn time off their prison stay towards prerelease custody.
— Partner with reforms at the state and local level.
For a nation that holds a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other country in the world, it is high time that Congress seriously addresses this issue. To fight poverty, we cannot ignore the impact our current prison system has on the chance of violators’ success upon release. Ryan’s discussion draft will hopefully prompt conversation amongst the American people and bring the incarceration rate to the forefront of Congress’ attention.